After Republicans initially blocked a bill that would expand benefits for veterans exposed to toxins while deployed, the Senate is now poised to pass the legislation in the coming days.
Last week, sudden Republican opposition to the bill, called the PACT Act, left many veterans and their supporters shocked. After days of backlash, lawmakers are set to reconsider the bill in a Senate vote this week, with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell telling NBC News that he expects it will pass.
Both chambers of Congress previously approved the bill, with the Senate voting 84-14 in June in favor, but the bill was forced into another vote after “administrative issues” were found in its text. After changes were made, it was expected to breeze through Congress and be signed into law by President Joe Biden.
Opposition from 25 Republican senators who changed their vote, citing concerns over how the measure was funded, stymied the bill last Wednesday.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), who led opposition to the bill, expressed his desire for an amendment focused on budgetary spending.
“There is a mechanism created in this bill, it’s a budgetary gimmick, that has the intent of making it possible to have a huge explosion in unrelated spending — $400 billion,” Toomey claimed on the Senate floor Wednesday.
Shortly after his floor speech, Toomey told CNN he wants the funding of the bill handled through an annual appropriations process, rather than the current mandatory spending structure — basically, that he wants Congress to have to approve funding for the measure every year, rather than for it to be funded automatically.
Other Republican senators say they were convinced by this argument, and now, Schumer has said he will allow a vote on an appropriations amendment as the bill comes up for consideration again this week.
It’s not yet clear whether some Republicans will continue to fight against the bill if they don’t get the changes they want. However, given the blowback the GOP has faced following its failure in the Senate last week, the party is likely more open to finding a compromise to quickly move it forward. If it is filibustered, the bill will need 60 votes — including GOP support — in order to pass.
Republicans say they oppose the bill because of its spending. Democrats disagree.
Republicans, including McConnell, claimed their opposition to the bill has been rooted in how spending would be approved.
“As written, the legislation would not just help America’s veterans as designed. It could also allow Democrats to effectively spend the same money twice and enable hundreds of billions in new, unrelated spending on the discretionary side of the federal budget,” McConnell said on Thursday.
This opposition raised the question of why more than two dozen Republicans, many veterans themselves, voted for it earlier this summer but flipped last week.
Democrats, including, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) argued that Republicans took out on the PACT Act their anger over a separate bill. Democrats are attempting to pass the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which includes a historic $369 billion to be spent over the next 10 years to address climate change, health care, inflation, and taxes.
And they’re doing so over Republican pushback. McConnell vowed not to allow a bipartisan technology bill championed by Schumer, the CHIPS Act, to clear the Senate so long as the proposal that became the Inflation Reduction Act was on the table. Democrats announced that a deal on the social and climate spending had stalled, perhaps indefinitely, and the CHIPS bill was allowed to move forward. Hours later, the IRA was announced, much to the GOP’s chagrin.
“Republicans are mad that Democrats are on the verge of passing climate change legislation and have decided to take out their anger on vulnerable veterans,” Murphy argued. “News emerged that there is an agreement that makes it likely that a climate change bill is going to proceed on the Senate floor, and magically 30 votes flip.”
The Democratic candidate for an open Senate seat in Missouri, Lucas Kunce, echoed the sentiment in an interview with Vox. “They had voted for it the first time, they changed because they want to protest a separate bill is what I understand,” he said. Kunce served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine officer and was deployed in Iraq where he was stationed near a burn pit and developed a post-nasal drip due to his exposure.
Republicans’ decision to oppose the bill has been met with massive backlash; veterans activist and former television host John Stewart has made numerous appearances calling on the GOP to return to backing the bill, including on Fox News. Veterans and their allies have also protested continually in front of the Capitol. The protests and publicity are challenging the traditional narrative that the Republican Party stands by US troops. Acknowledging the public pressure, McConnell told NBC’s Ali Vitali, “Yeah, it’ll pass this week” on Monday.
What the PACT Act is, and why it matters
The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, otherwise known as the PACT Act, was introduced in June by Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), who chairs the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, with the aim to address and fund health care, research, and other matters related to veterans who were exposed to toxic substances, including burn pits — large trenches dug to burn and dispose of sewage, medical waste, and other trash — during their service.
The bill contains two major components: a grace period for veterans who served near burn pits to get medical care, and a policy that tells the VA how to approach certain illnesses and cancers. Veterans would not have to prove that their illnesses are directly related to burn pit exposure to receive disability payments and assistance. Currently, more than 70 percent of disability claims related to burn pit exposure are denied by the VA due to veterans’ inability to prove their illnesses or cancers are linked to exposure to burn pits.
Cancers and other issues alleged to be related to burn pits can come years later, as happened to Sgt. Heath Robinson, whom the bill is named after. Robinson died in 2020 of a rare lung cancer he attributed to smoke exposure during his deployment in Iraq in 2006 and 2007.
Kunce said he felt that many in the armed services assumed they wouldn’t be put in such a harmful situation. “[It was] probably a dumb assumption to make, but … you gotta trust the system, first of all,” Kunce said. “Second of all, you’ve got no choice, right? I mean, you’re there, there’s nothing else you could do.”
Robinson’s wife Danielle, an advocate for burn pit exposure victims who have been denied benefits, attended Biden’s State of the Union address earlier this year. In his speech, Biden laid out his support for enhancing veterans’ benefits as part of his so-called bipartisan “unity agenda” which, among other things, focuses on the commitment to veterans by delivering on promises made regarding health care, mental health, and homelessness.
The PACT Act is part of a broader conversation that’s happening over veterans’ rights. In June, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision in favor of a veteran whose case was related to burn pit exposure in Torres v. Texas Department of Public Safety. The ruling allowed US Army veteran Le Roy Torres to sue the state of Texas after losing his job due to an injury he received while serving.
A vote on the legislation should happen this week, and, as McConnell suggested, it is expected to pass, regardless of what happens with Toomey’s amendment. If it were to fail, the GOP would again find itself at the center of protests and accusations the party would like to avoid ahead of the midterms.
Update, August 2, 12:30 pm: This story has been updated to include new information about a Senate vote on this legislation.
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