Last-ditch effort to pass Blue Water Navy bill fails in Senate

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 11, 2018

WASHINGTON — A final deal to provide Department of Veterans Affairs benefits to thousands of veterans who served off the coast during the Vietnam War failed in the Senate on Monday night with little time remaining in the 115th Congress to try again.

The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act would extend eligibility for disability compensation and health care to “Blue Water” Navy veterans – servicemembers who were aboard aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers and other ships, some of whom have fought for years to prove they were exposed to Agent Orange. The dioxin-laden herbicide has been found to cause respiratory cancers, Parkinson’s disease and heart disease, as well as other conditions.

The House voted 382-0 in favor of the legislation in June. Since then, it’s been stuck in the Senate. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie voiced his opposition to the bill in September, citing cost concerns and insufficient scientific evidence. He urged lawmakers to hold off until a new study is released in 2019.

On Monday night, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., went to the Senate floor and asked for unanimous consent to pass the bill. Unanimous consent expedites approval but can be stopped if one senator objects.

Citing cost concerns, Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, objected.

“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.”

Enzi said he wanted more details about how many veterans would be made eligible for benefits under the legislation and how much it would cost.

According to initial estimates from the Congressional Budget Office, the bill would come at a price of $1.1 billion for the next 10 years. VA officials have argued the true total could be billions of dollars more. To offset costs, the bill includes a new fee for VA home loans – a proposal some lawmakers oppose.

“There’s clearly more work to do just on figuring out the spending and administration of this and the deficit impacts this bill will have,” Enzi said on the Senate floor.

Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., later criticized Enzi’s objection, arguing the same senator voted in favor of the GOP tax cuts estimated to increase the national deficit.

“I must say that it is a bit disheartening to see a bill that was passed unanimously by the House blocked by just a handful of senators over supposed fiscal concerns when those same senators voted to add trillions of dollars to the deficit last year to score a political win on the back of American taxpayers,” Walz said in a statement.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars also issued a scathing criticism of Enzi on Monday night, describing his objection as “obstruction,” and adding, “the VFW nor its members will forget this.”

Enzi’s opposition came after Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., pressured senators to approve the bill. Isakson, chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, has worked for months to address concerns from some of his fellow Republicans.

Enzi wasn’t the only senator with concerns. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, opposed the effort because he wanted to wait for the scientific study the VA promised in 2019, according to a Military Update report.

Isakson rebuked requests Monday to wait for the study and said: “This thing has been studied as long as it needs to be studied. We’ve got the best information we need to get.”

“I would just ask every member before they consider casting a ‘no’ vote, think about what you’re doing,” Isakson said. “I would ask each of you to search your heart… think about the veterans in your state and cast a vote for doing the right thing for the right people at the right time and not object to the motion.”

Gillibrand and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, held a news conference Tuesday with veterans groups and requested the Senate try again to pass the bill.

Senate leadership could still bring the issue up under regular order in its remaining days, though it appeared unlikely Tuesday. Tester said senators could also try again for unanimous consent, like they attempted Monday.

If the Senate fails to approve the bill before the end of the 115th Congress, advocates will have to start from the beginning next year.

“The truth is, we can’t wait another six months or nine months or a year for Secretary Wilkie,” Gillibrand said. “We don’t have that time. Our veterans are dying now. I think any delay by the secretary of the VA is morally wrong.”

John Wells, an attorney and director of the group Military-Veterans Advocacy, has been fighting on behalf of Blue Water Navy veterans since 2008. He was doubtful Tuesday about the Senate’s ability to approve the bill.

“I’d be very shocked,” Wells said. “It would be very nice if it did pass, but I’d say the odds are tremendously against it at this point.”

In addition to the legislative effort, Wells has been fighting for the benefits in court. He argued this year in the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in a case that could result in the same extension of benefits.

“I think it’s going to happen, whether through Congress or through the courts, I don’t know,” Wells said. “I think we have to continue to be optimistic. From where we sat two years ago, it looked like it was completely dead in the water. Then we made a whole heck of a lot of progress in this Congress.”



Twitter: @nikkiwentling