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THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION / FAYE FIORE

To Filipinos, This Congressman Is 'Elvis'

April 29, 1997|FAYE FIORE

By all indications, it looked like it was going to be a Wednesday afternoon session of vacation slides from hell. There we were, holed up on a lovely spring day in the Capitol Hill office of Rep. Bob Filner, San Diego Democrat, while he described snapshots of his recent trip to the Philippines. Everybody got their own set.

"Bob and Jane Filner enjoy breakfast with the Sons and Daughters of World War II veterans. . . . Bob Filner discusses trade with the president of the Philippine National Oil Co. . . . Bob Filner studies concrete map of World War II battles at the Manila American Cemetery. . . ."

The only American reporter in attendance (who shall remain nameless but whose initials are Yours Truly), sat quietly, plotting her escape, when suddenly she noticed that the handful of Filipino dignitaries and journalists in the room were utterly rapt. Even two who were enjoying this pictorial trip down memory lane over the phone not only requested their own personal set of snapshots, but suggested that someone please take a snapshot of Bob Filner describing the snapshots.

"This is news in and of itself," the voice on the speaker phone rejoiced.

Here on the mainland, Filner is a three-term congressman who had to fight mightily in the March 1996 primary to keep his seat and has done little to make a name for himself outside of his diverse, largely blue-collar district.

But in the Philippines, he's Elvis.

The reason: Filner has carried two bills seeking national recognition and benefits for Filipino veterans who fought for the United States in World War II. Basically, he argues, those veterans laid down life and limb 50 years ago only to have the USA do an about-face and slam the door when it was all over. Understandably, it is a very emotional subject in the Philippines.

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"It's not the money," the congressman said while walking up the Capitol steps for a vote, having briefly stepped away from the fans waiting eagerly back in his office for more face time with their hero. "It's a matter of honor and respect, of recognition."

It is not unusual for members of Congress, held as a group in generally low regard by some Americans, to be utterly revered by some foreigners. Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican, is beloved by the Seiks; Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, New Jersey Democrat, is the champion of Cuban refugees; and former Sen. Bob Dole, Kansas Republican, is a pillar among Armenians.

Filner took up his cause in response to the sizable Filipino community that occupies his district, the largest concentration of Filipinos anywhere in the United States. At issue is the Rescission Act of 1946, which limited U.S. benefits to Filipino veterans who were killed, maimed or suffered service-related injuries, but left out those who were not casualties.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that more than 70,000 Filipino veterans here and abroad have been excluded by the act, most of them ailing and in their 70s.

"For more than 50 years, Filipino veterans who bravely fought with American soldiers in defense of the United States during World War II have been shamefully denied the recognition they deserve," the congressman said.

This year Filner introduced the Filipino Veterans Equity Act which would grant benefits to that country's World War II vets.

But the bill is not popular in Congress. A similar measure died in the last session, probably because it would cost American taxpayers an estimated $777 million a year.

"An anti-immigration wind is blowing thorough the American landscape," the Philippine Daily Inquirer recently opined of Congress's resistance to paying foreign vets. "This is a periodic and ironic interlude in that nation of immigrants."

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So the nation looks to Filner to forge on, and he has fervently vowed not to let them down. He already managed to push through a bill that recognized the service of Filipino veterans, even if it paid them nothing. President Clinton followed suit with a proclamation of appreciation, which went a long way with Filipino vets.

Small wonder, then, that the congressman was given the red carpet treatment when he hit Filipino soil earlier this month. The Filipino version of "Good Morning America" made him the featured guest. His face was on the front page of three of the nation's major newspapers. ("I'm not used to that," he quipped.) And the Speaker of the House in the Philippines received him with open arms. (Warm greeting from a House speaker; he's not used to that either.)

"They love him there," press secretary Steve Weiss said proudly. "He has been a little bit embarrassed by the attention because of the sacrifices made by these veterans. He's going to continue working on the bill. His efforts are all done in acknowledgment of the dedication, loyalty and bravery shown by the Filipino veterans during World War II."

Filner finished casting his vote and hurried back to his office where his guests waited eagerly. He had hundreds of snapshots. And they had only seen 22.

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