Two Republican senators killed a bill on Monday that would provide benefits to American veterans who served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War and now suffer the effects of Agent Orange.
The reason? Extending benefits to those veterans would constitute deficit spending.
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.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) brought the bill to the floor on Monday night asking for unanimous consent to pass the measure, which would expedite the bill but can be derailed by just one no vote.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY) provided the only objection necessary to kill the bill.
“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.
“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.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated the bill would cost $1.1 billion over the next decade — a number VA officials say could balloon to billions of dollars more. The measure included a new fee for VA home loans in an effort to mitigate the costs, Stars and Stripes reported.
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.
Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) also objected to the bill, saying he preferred to wait for the VA’s promised study in 2019.