The decades-long effort to recognize and honor the U.S. Merchant Marines of WWII took another step forward Wednesday when the House passed a bipartisan measure to award the seamen a Congressional Gold Medal. The medal, along with the Presidential Medal of Honor, is the highest civilian award in the country. More than 200,000 Merchant Mariners played essential and perilous roles in winning the war -- ferrying American troops and supplies into Atlantic and Pacific theater battle zones. Some of the roughly 5,000 remaining mariners -- now in their 80s and 90s -- expressed gratitude this week over the House effort. And they voiced guarded optimism about a similar Senate measure and about perhaps getting compensation like the soldiers and sailors with whom they served.
On Monday, President Donald J. Trump will sign an executive order to help sea veterans seamlessly transition into the United States Merchant Marine. By simultaneously expanding veteran opportunities for great jobs at great wages while strengthening our Merchant Marine, this action embodies a key principle of the Trump administration: economic security is national security. The civilian men and women of the United States Merchant Marine who pilot sealift vessels represent a mission-critical component of United States military readiness. In World War II alone, nearly 10,000 merchant mariners were killed by enemy fire and died at a rate of 1 in 26 – a casualty rate higher than any branch of the United States military. Their willingness to serve and their sacrifice continue to play a vital role in America's defense.
Even as Congress is blowing its deadline to produce a budget, a once-dominant Senate committee tried to reassert itself and move ahead on 12 annual spending bills that for years have been offered as a take-it-or-leave-it bundle. The Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously approved two of the most popular spending measures on Thursday, providing spending increases for veterans and funding popular energy and water development programs. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., promised to spend three months of the Senate's time for floor debates on the measures, trying to revive an appropriations process that broke years ago. But a companion House effort faces an uncertain future, as GOP conservatives derailed the efforts of House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to pass a separate, broader budget plan. Many GOP conservatives oppose both the GOP budget and the follow-up spending bills, which include higher spending levels of last year's budget deal.
India is very sensitive about the presence of armed security guards on merchant ships after Italian marines fatally shot two fishermen in 2012. The marines, part of a military security team on a cargo ship, fired at the fishermen, mistaking them for pirates. The two Italians are facing trial in India over the deaths.