WASHINGTON -- A proposal to extend health coverage for Agent Orange exposure to Vietnam-era Navy veterans has the type of backing in Congress that normally would make supporters hopeful.
In the House, a bill granting the benefits has garnered a whopping 320 sponsors -- almost 75 percent of all members have signed on in support. Nearly half of all senators also support extending benefits to the so-called "blue water" sailors who served aboard ships in ports and surrounding ocean during the Vietnam War.
"If you served just offshore, you don't have presumed coverage," said Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., a retired Army colonel who sponsored the House bill. "Members of Congress have to fight case by case ... It should not have to be that way, they should get presumed coverage."
But the legislation has collected dust for a year, failing to move past House and Senate veteran affairs committees that serve as a crucial first step on the road to making the benefits law. The Republican chairmen of these committees are skeptical of the science behind the exposure claims and concerned about the cost of new benefits. This has held up the proposals, frustrating supporters.
The window for Congress to act might be closing -- despite the support -- as lawmakers face the long summer recess, a fall schedule dominated by the presidential election and the end of the legislative session in December.
Gibson, Senate lawmakers and veterans groups, including Vietnam Veterans of America and Veterans of Foreign Wars, were set to rally on Capitol Hill on Wednesday in hopes of finally moving the bills ahead. The expansion of coverage has been sought by veterans for a decade.
"We've never been in a stronger position to get it passed," Gibson said.
Some veteran sailors contend dioxin-tainted herbicide runoff was sucked up through their ships' water filtration systems and piped to crew, sometimes at concentrated levels.