Following days of being in limbo, legislation meant to ensure health care for veterans sickened by toxic exposure from burn pits cleared the U.S. Senate after Republicans ended their opposition to the bill.
Over the last week, Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who heads the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, was one of the most vocal backers of the legislation, from giving fiery statements about it stalling out to meeting with veterans who camped out in Washington, D.C., in protest of the delay in passage.
“The Senate took a historic step today to deliver all eras of veterans their earned support through passage of the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act,” Tester, a Democrat, said in an emailed statement.
“For hundreds of thousands of veterans, generations of our all-volunteer military and their families, this bill is putting us on a path to finally recognizing the toxic wounds of war. This bill was a long time coming to right the wrongs to our toxic-exposed veterans — and it’s the bill our veterans and their families deserve, are counting on, and cannot wait any longer for," Tester said. "Our men and women in uniform held up their end of the bargain, and I’m proud we’re finally holding up ours.”
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While Montana's U.S. Sen. Steve Daines initially issued a statement offering support for the bill when it first moved out of the Senate, he flipped to opposing it last week. His staff said he backed the goal of the PACT Act, but wanted an amendment added that would allow Congress to adjust the amount of annual spending in the bill instead of requiring a set amount.
The road to final passage was cleared after Democrats agreed to allow a vote on an amendment from Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., that was designed to foreclose the possibility of what he called “a massive unrelated spending binge” by Democrats.
Toomey and other conservatives had raised objections to the bill because it would reclassify nearly $400 billion in current-law VA spending from discretionary to mandatory accounts, thereby potentially freeing up more budget authority to increase discretionary spending on domestic programs unrelated to veterans. His amendment would keep current VA spending in discretionary accounts.
Toomey had been pushing for a simple-majority vote on his amendment. But after days of public protests over the delay of passage from veterans groups and comedian Jon Stewart, Toomey tweeted his agreement to a 60-vote threshold for GOP amendments, which is what Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer had offered.
“There’s no better message we can send to the ... veterans that have camped out for nights in front of the Capitol that their long wait and the wait of veterans everywhere is finally over,” Schumer said in urging swift passage Tuesday before the vote.
Tester met with Stewart and they both addressed the veterans camped out at the Capitol.
The 60-vote threshold appeared designed to ensure that the amendment would be defeated in the 50-50 Senate. Adoption of any amendments would send the bill back to the House for yet another floor vote.
Toomey’s amendment was rejected, 47-48, with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the sole GOP “no” vote.
In an emailed statement, Daines explained why he voted for the bill Tuesday.
“Today, I was glad to vote for the PACT Act to deliver disability and health benefits earned by Montana veterans suffering from toxic exposure that occurred during their military service,” Daines said. “In recent days, I worked to ensure the VA is held accountable for meeting the needs of these veterans while also preventing big spenders in Washington from funding unrelated programs. While I’m disappointed these improvements did not pass, the ‘PACT Act’ passed with my full support. I look forward to it becoming law in the very near future.”
A Daines spokesperson said later Tuesday evening that Daines' earlier "no" vote was procedural in nature.
More than 3.5 million veterans who were exposed to toxic substances on overseas deployments will gain easier access to health and disability benefits under the bill.
The 86-11 vote ended weeks of delay that began with a constitutional concern over an obscure tax provision that had to be removed. And the holdup grew longer after an eleventh-hour objection from Republican senators last week who pushed for an amendment to change how some Department of Veterans Affairs health care spending is accounted for in the budget.
President Joe Biden is certain to sign the bill into law in the coming days.
The legislation, long sought by veterans groups, means that millions of veterans suffering health problems will no longer have to prove their illnesses were caused by exposure to toxic substances from military deployments. Many served at bases that used open-air burn pits to dispose of trash and hazardous waste.
The bill would make service members who contracted any of 23 conditions — from brain cancer to hypertension — after being deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and other combat zones automatically eligible for VA benefits. The measure is expected to cost nearly $280 billion over a decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.