Several key members of Congress announced yesterday that they have reached a compromise on legislation that attempts to resolve the continuing debate over Agent Orange's impact on Vietnam veterans.
Under the proposal, the National Academy of Sciences would replace a controversial task force established during the Reagan administration to review scientific studies on the herbicide's health effects.
A number of veterans groups and their congressional advocates have charged that the panel, as well as the federal Centers for Disease Control, have ignored evidence that the widely used defoliant has caused cancers, birth defects and a range of other ailments among the thousands of Vietnam troops and their offspring. Members of the panel have countered that the evidence is not clear and convincing.
"We got most of what we wanted out of this compromise," said Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.), a leader of the Congressional Vietnam-Era Veterans Caucus. "This is a big step forward in dealing with Agent Orange."
Evans was among sponsors of similar legislation that expired at the end of the 101st Congress in a dispute between the House and the Senate. Yesterday, some opponents of that measure announced they were backing the new legislation, a move advocates said should ensure passage.
Rep. G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and long a skeptic of Agent Orange claims, introduced the compromise in the House, describing it as the product of a "long and arduous" search for "a fair and rational" answer to the complaints of Vietnam veterans. Montgomery, who had resisted such legislation, said his bill would rely "heavily on science" by placing the academy in charge of reviewing the research.
After the academy reports findings on a particular disease to the VA secretary, he would have 60 days to decide whether veterans suffering with the disease are entitled to service-connected disability payments.
"It may be the best we can get," said American Legion spokesman John Hanson, who expressed hope that the Bush administration would support the proposal. "We've given ground. It would be close to a breach of faith, if Congress were to pass it and it didn't get any further than that," he said.
Dennis R. Boxx, a spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said he could not say if the administration will support the legislation.
VA Secretary Edward J. Derwinski has won support of veterans groups for adding non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and soft-tissue sarcomas, two forms of cancer, to the ailments that the government has recognized as linked to Agent Orange exposure or service in Vietnam. Until he acted, only chloracne, a severe skin rash, was recognized as related to the chemical.
The Bush administration was wary of the previous Agent Orange legislation because it mandated certain testing of Vietnam veterans. "We are pleased that Congress is building upon the actions taken by the secretary," Boxx said. "It appears that some progress has been made in addressing our concerns with the previous legislation on Agent Orange and the secretary will work with Senate and House members on this legislation."
"I am confident that this legislation will be successful," said Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.). "I hope that its enactment will mean that, for many Vietnam veterans, the battle with the federal government over the effects of Agent Orange exposure is finally coming to an end."