Members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee called on the Senate on Thursday to vote on the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans bill before the legislative body heads home for the holidays.
During a press conference, committee chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., and Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the ranking member and committee's next chairman, pressed for a floor vote after an effort failed Wednesday in the Senate.
"There's a joke that sometimes the enemy is not the other party, it is the Senate. They are not really the enemy, but they are being very difficult," Takano said.
On Wednesday, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, blocked a move to pass the bill, the Blue Water Navy, Vietnam Veterans Act of 2018, by unanimous consent. Lee wants to wait for a Department of Veterans Affairs report, due out next year, on whether health issues diagnosed in Blue Water veterans actually are related to Agent Orange exposure.
"The brave men and women who have sacrificed so much for our country should undoubtedly get the medical care they need in connection with their service. But ... it's also our duty to ensure that this is done in a prudent and proper way with all the relevant information available to us," Lee said, speaking on the Senate floor on Wednesday.
Lee's objection, as well as concerns by Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming, over the bill's estimated $2.2 billion cost over 10 years, was enough to block the bill in the Senate, where lawmakers hoped to pass it by unanimous consent, which would not require a floor vote of all senators.
But House members, who passed the bill 382-0 in June, proposed that the Senate hold a floor vote.
Roe admitted that the existing studies that link health conditions in Navy veterans to Agent Orange aren't definitive, but he added that it's time to "move past that."
"We're this close to solving a decades-old problem for 90,000 of our colleagues. If we wait long enough, it won't matter because they'll all be gone," Roe said.
The bill would provide compensation for veterans who served on Navy ships off Vietnam and have diseases that have been linked to Agent Orange in ground-based Vietnam veterans. These "Blue Water" veterans have pushed for years to get health care and compensation for their service-connected illnesses and disabilities.
In 2002, the VA ruled that veterans must have served on the ground in Vietnam to receive Agent Orange-related benefits; personnel who served on certain vessels that patrolled inland waterways also are eligible.
Veterans and their advocates say the exclusion of personnel who served on ships offshore is unfair, as studies indicate that troops may have been exposed when they showered or drank water on their vessels that was distilled from contaminated sea water.
Under the House proposal, the cost of the bill would be offset by raising interest rates for VA home loans for active-duty service members. "I feel very comfortable that this bill is fully funded," Roe said.
VA officials, however, have objected to the measure, saying it puts a burden on young active-duty troops as well as disabled veterans.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, pledged Wednesday that the Senate would take up the measure next year. "[These veterans] have been denied year after year. ... Asking them to wait denies them justice. ... These veterans very simply are passing away; they will be denied of these benefits owed them."
The bill also would broaden coverage for veterans who served in the Korean demilitarized zone, where defoliants were tested, and also expand benefits to children with spina bifida caused a parent's exposure in Thailand.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.