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A new World War II battle was waged Tuesday in the House Veterans' Affairs Committee as lawmakers tussled over how far to extend veterans' status to contractors who were part of the war effort.
The fight came as the committee considered a 10-year-old bill that would provide a $1,000 monthly pension and a chance to use 60-year-old GI Bill education benefits to Merchant Marine veterans who served during World War II, including members of the Army Transport Service and Naval Transport Service.
This should have been easy, because the committee and the full House of Representatives passed the same bill last year, only to see it die when the Senate never considered it.
Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., the chief sponsor of the bill and the veterans' committee chairman, said he is pushing the measure as a matter of fairness to Merchant mariners who were given veterans' status years ago but never received the same benefits as other veterans.
But Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana, the committee's ranking Republican, launched a two-pronged attack: First, he argued against the entire bill because it could set a precedent for contractors working alongside U.S. troops in Iraq to also demand veterans' benefits.
He also argued that if Merchant Marine veterans deserved special status, then so do people in 28 similar groups who worked with the U.S. military during World War II — including the Flying Tigers, civilian volunteers in Bataan, the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps and the Women's Air Force Service Pilots.
The legislative skirmish ended with a 15-14 vote that excluded the 28 additional groups, and sends the Merchant Marine bill — HR 466 — off to a future vote by the full House.
Buyer said a $1,000 pension for Merchant Marine veterans elevate their status because it would be one of the rare situations in which the government would pay veterans a pension not based on disability or low income.
The only other veterans who qualify for such payment are Medal of Honor recipients, who receive a $1,100 monthly pension.
"Not even groups of prisoners of war get a pension like this," Buyer said.
Filner said that in the 10 years he has been pushing for better Merchant Marine benefits, he has never heard from any other group of people asking for similar treatment. He said he'd be willing to consider such entreaties from other groups — just not as part of this particular bill.
The $1,000 pension and the chance to use 1944 GI Bill benefits if they never received such benefits are not guaranteed.
The bill would make the benefits subject to the availability of funding, and benefits would be provided only to those who apply within one year of the measure becoming law.
It also is not clear how someone would attend college using GI Bill benefits that paid a maximum of $500 a year for tuition.