The US Senate on Tuesday approved a bill aimed at expanding health care to millions of veterans exposed to toxins after Republicans blocked a procedural vote to advance the bill last week.
The PACT Act, which seeks to provide benefits to Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans suffering from burn exposure toxins as well as Vietnam War-era veterans, passed by an overwhelming margin, 86 votes to 11.
“This is a good day, a long-awaited day, a day that should have happened a long time ago,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in remarks immediately before the vote. “Today we say to our veterans with cancer, lung disease and other illnesses: No more pointless delays in getting health care that should have happened long ago.”
The Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxins Act, also known as the PACT Act, would greatly expand eligibility for free medical care through the Department of Veterans Affairs for veterans who have been exposed to toxic chemicals.
Over the past two decades, it has been reported that about 3.5 million post-9/11 combat veterans may have been exposed to hazardous chemicals while on duty, according to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
With 60 votes needed to move forward, the result of last week’s vote was 55-42, with 25 Republicans who supported an earlier version of the bill changing their vote to a “no.”
All Democrats and 8 Republicans present voted for the legislation, but 41 Republican senators voted against the bill, including Sens. Marsha Blackburn, R-Texas, John Cornyn, R-Texas, Rick Scott, R-Florida, and senator Ted Cruz R-Texas. In June, the bill passed the Senate 84-14.
Republicans over the weekend defended the decision to delay the passage of the bill, and Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey accused Democrats of trying to “sneak in something completely alien that they know could never pass on its own.”
Toomey, who led a group of Republicans to delay passage of the bill, told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that they are “not opposed” to the content of the bill, but opposed to the funding. He wants to push an amendment to the bill that would move funding for the bill from mandatory spending to the annual appropriations process that senators must vote on each year.
“What I’m trying to do is change a government accounting methodology that is designed to allow our Democratic colleagues to make an unrelated $400 billion in spending,” he told CNN.
But Montana Sen. Jon Tester, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, told CNN he disagrees with Toomey’s accusation, arguing that his fellow Democrats aren’t trying to pull a “fast nail.”
“I think veterans who serve this country are pretty important because they fight for our freedoms and make sure we’re safe,” he told the outlet. “And when it takes time to take care of them, we have to step up and do it. That’s the cost of war.”
The Pennsylvania Republican, who is retiring at the end of his term, said he had nothing to do with the deal reached between Leader Schumer and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin on a Democrat-only anti-climate change and anti-inflation bill. .
“It’s so absurd and disingenuous that anyone would suggest that it has anything to do with the BBB,” Toomey told CNN’s Jake Tapper, referring to the name of an earlier Democratic-only proposal for a funding bill for social spending and climate change. . “Who knew about BBB, you know, previous weeks when I’ve been raising this issue all this time and I’m very clear about this. So somebody has to willfully ignore the facts or be dishonest.”
Despite the objection, key members of the Senate Republican leadership, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.and Minority Whip John Thune, RS.D., predicted that the bill will finally pass in the next few days.
“This kind of back and forth happens all the time in the legislative process,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday. “I think in the end the veterans service organizations will be happy with the end result.”
His expected result came after three amendments presented by Republicans to the bill, proposed by Toomey, Blackburn and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. – were defeated. Those amendments, Schumer said at a press conference, would be voted on as part of a deal that would ensure passage of the PACT Act.
On the Senate floor Monday, Schumer said they’re “going to give Senate Republicans another chance to do the right thing, to work with us so we can get this bill to the president’s desk as soon as possible.”
“Our veterans have already given their all to defend our nation from threats abroad,” Schumer said. “They shouldn’t have to fight a second war here at home just to get the health care benefits they deserve. These brave Americans sacrificed everything. They risked life and limb and the least we can do as a country is to make sure they get the best care possible.” .
“Our veterans who have become ill from toxic exposure in the line of duty must receive the health care they need and deserve,” Schumer wrote in a Twitter post Sunday.
“Every minute we delay the step [PACT Act] it’s another minute lost to the diseases that are killing our veterans,” said fellow New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a leading proponent of the bill.
Many veterans spent the weekend protesting outside the U.S. Capitol in an effort to try to pressure lawmakers to support the bill.
“My suggestion to this Senate would be, when you come back, if not every member is here, keep the lights on, keep the doors open, and don’t leave here tonight until you do the right thing for these people.” Jon Stewart, the iconic comedian who pushed for the passage of this legislation, said Monday before the Capitol. “As simple as it is, don’t make it harder than it is. That’s it.”
“We’re not leaving!” a member of the crowd yelled at Stewart. “Pass the PACT Act!” shouted another.
Jen Burch, a veteran who told Spectrum News she was exposed to burns while serving in Afghanistan, called last week’s vote “disheartening.”
“It’s been an incredibly frustrating few days,” he told Spectrum News. “Sitting in the chair watching senator after senator change their vote.”
Burch spent Monday touring the halls of Congress in an effort to pressure lawmakers to pass the bill.
“We’re really here to ask for your support once again and to get this PACT Act passed once again before the summer recess,” he said.
The bill has strong support from the Biden administration. On Saturday, President Joe Biden, who is still in isolation after testing positive again for COVID-19, held a FaceTime conversation with protesters camped outside the Capitol. Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough brought the group’s pizza and phone connection to talk to the president.
Biden thanked protesters Saturday for their “heart” and “soul” in the fight to get the bill passed: “America has many obligations but only one truly sacred obligation, and I say this from the bottom of my heart: it is say. to take care of those and prepare those we send to war, and take care of them and their families when they come home.”
“As long as there’s breath in me, we’re going to fight to get this done,” Biden promised the group.
“This was the No. 1 priority for President Biden,” McDonough told CNN on Sunday. “These people have waited long enough. Let’s do it, and let’s not be for a proposal that puts artificial limits year by year, and then functionally, at the end of those 10 years, makes this fund disappear. don’t sign up to that, because in the end the risk of that is going to be the rationing of care to veterans.”
Anna Betts of Spectrum News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Senate passes veterans burnout legislation
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