WASHINGTON — Satisfied of a possible link between Agent Orange and birth defects, the Senate passed a bill Thursday that would give federal benefits to Vietnam War veterans whose children suffer from spina bifida.
If the House goes along and President Clinton signs the measure, it would mark the first time dependents of those exposed to the powerful herbicide would be eligible for benefits.
Some senators questioned evidence of a link between Agent Orange exposure and the crippling neural defect, but they were overruled by lawmakers who said veterans should be given the benefit of the doubt.
Seeking to avoid an outright vote against veterans, opponents of the measure first tried a technical procedure to rule it out of order. They were defeated, 62 to 35. The measure then was approved by voice vote.
The amendment to a fiscal 1997 spending bill would extend health care and related benefits, including a monthly monetary allowance, to Vietnam War veterans' children suffering from spina bifida. It was offered by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), a longtime advocate of helping those veterans who returned home sick after exposure to the defoliant used to clear jungles.
Reps. Luis V. Gutierrez and Lane Evans, both Illinois Democrats, have introduced similar legislation in the House that would provide monthly allowances of up to $1,200 for veterans with disabled children.
Currently the Veterans Affairs Department recognizes seven diseases as related to exposure to Agent Orange, including Hodgkin's disease, multiple myeloma, respiratory cancers and prostate cancer.
The National Academy of Sciences, in findings released earlier this year, concluded that there was "limited or suggestive evidence" of an association between Agent Orange and spina bifida.
That was weaker than its strongest category of "sufficient evidence" of a link, but enough for Clinton and the VA to urge Congress to extend benefits to exposed veterans whose children suffer from the birth defect.
The VA estimates that up to 3,000 children of Vietnam War veterans may be afflicted with spina bifida.
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) opposed the measure, saying it would create a costly new entitlement program based on a lack of proof of a linkage. He also noted the difficulty of voting against it.
"I've been here 18 years and it's tough enough when you mention the word 'veteran,' but when you mention the words 'veteran' and 'innocent disabled children,' then the engines are fully cranked. But there isn't any way to pay for this one," said Simpson, who is retiring at the end of this session.
But the ranking Democrat on the committee, Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, said the benefits should be extended even if there was only a 50-50 possibility of a link. "In such cases I am totally comfortable with giving a strong presumption in favor of the children of American service members," he said.