- Kemberly Groue/US Air Force
- The Senate failed to pass a bill Monday that would extend Veterans Affairs benefits to thousands of Navy veterans who were potentially exposed to Agent Orange.
- H.R. 299 passed the House of Representatives in a unanimous vote, but has stalled in the Senate due to concerns over the bill’s cost.
- The VA has estimated that the bill would cost some $5.5 million, and has also argued that the addition of thousands of beneficiaries would exacerbate its current backlog.
- Sen. Mike Enzi cited these concerns when he objected to the bill’s unanimous passage on Monday night.
On Monday night, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand went to the floor of the Senate to ask her colleagues for unanimous consent to pass H.R. 299, known as the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act.
The act, which passed in the House of Representatives with a unanimous vote, would extend Veterans Affairs benefits to veterans who served in warships off the coast of Vietnam and were exposed to toxic Agent Orange.
If successful, Gillibrand’s request would have expedited the bill’s passage – but one senator, Republican Mike Enzi of Wyoming, objected, according to Stars & Stripes.
“On this bill, many of us have been made aware of the potential cost growth and the budgetary and operational pressures that would happen at the VA,” he said. “They’re having a lot of problems, anyway.”
The VA has estimated that the bill would cost the bureau $5.5 million over the course of 10 years. But the Congressional Budget Office has previously estimated it would cost a fraction of that amount – $1.1 million. Regardless of cost, some senators, backed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, view the bill as an obligation.
“If we can afford to send veterans to war, it’s unacceptable that we can’t afford to take care of them when they return home wounded,” B.J. Lawrence, national commander of the VFW, said in a statement.
Sen. Jon Tester, the ranking Democrat on the Senate veterans affairs committee, agreed.
“It is our obligation to meet the needs of the folks who have sacrificed for our country,” he said on the Senate floor.
Sens. Gillibrand and Tester held a press conference Tuesday morning, calling for more support for the struggling bill.
“Shame on the VA for trying to muddy the waters and say ‘but we don’t have enough money for these veterans,'” Gillibrand said in the press conference. “Is their sacrifice no less?”