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Senate Republicans block bill to help veterans exposed to burn pits

Comedian Jon Stewart voices his anger at Republican senators July 28 after they stalled a bill aimed at giving greater health-care access to U.S. military veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked a bill to help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits weeks after the measure initially sailed through the Senate with 84 votes, angering Democrats, veterans groups and comedian Jon Stewart, a leading proponent to aid the community.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, was particularly incensed by the turn of events. Tester, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), other lawmakers and Stewart on Thursday morning joined veterans outside the Capitol — who originally came to Washington to see the bill pass — to assail the GOP.

“It just makes the gut punch that more devastating,” Stewart said, given the number of veterans who came to Washington hoping the bill would pass. “Their constituents are dying.”

“This is a disgrace,” he added.

Jon Stewart joined Democratic lawmakers in the District on July 28 after Senate Republicans blocked a new plan to help millions of veterans. (Video: The Washington Post)

The bill would significantly change how the Department of Veterans Affairs cares for veterans who were exposed to toxic substances by compelling VA to presume that certain illnesses are linked to exposure to hazardous waste incineration, mostly focused on the issue of burn pits from recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That would remove the burden of proof from the injured veterans.

Democrats accused Republicans of voting against the bill in retaliation for a deal announced earlier by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) that will allow Democrats to move ahead on an economic, health-care and climate package without Republican votes.

Republicans say that’s not true. They point instead to a budgetary policy dispute between the two parties.

Tester shared his frustration and confusion with Republican lawmakers who supported the bill a few weeks ago but changed their position and voted against moving forward Wednesday.

“I’ve been in this business for 25 years in the state legislature and here, and I have never seen anything that’s happened like what happened yesterday,” he said. “And what compounds it and makes it that much more difficult is we, in essence, yesterday took benefits away from the people who have been impacted by a war that we set off.

“And we turn our backs and say, ‘No, we’re going to find an excuse to vote against our veterans,’ while we wave the flag, talking about how great our fighting men and women are,” Tester added.

Biden calls for legislation to help sick veterans who served near burn pits

Pelosi said Republicans’ actions are particularly unusual, given that helping veterans usually attracts significant bipartisan support.

“I’m very sad that 80 percent of the Republicans in the United States Senate said no to veterans yesterday,” she said Thursday. “Eighty percent. Forty votes, no.”

“The veterans have waited too long, long overdue,” Pelosi added. “Three and a half million veterans will benefit, have the possibility of benefiting from this legislation. Why subject them to this?”

Veterans — some in shirts emblazoned with the American flag and others wearing masks — held up signs. One read “Sick and dying veterans need healthcare,” while another held the GOP responsible with the words “Veterans blood is on Republican hands.”

A version of the legislation was approved by the Senate by a vote of 84-14 in June. It was back in the Senate on Wednesday because the House made modest changes before passing the bill on a 342-88 vote about two weeks ago.

Tester went on Twitter after the vote to voice his disgust with the outcome.

“In an eleventh-hour act of cowardice, Republicans chose today to rob generations of toxic-exposed veterans across this country of the health care and benefits they’ve earned and so desperately need,” he tweeted. “Make no mistake — the American people are sick and tired of these games.”

On Wednesday, the revised measure drew 55 votes in the Senate — short of the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster. Twenty-five Republicans who previously supported versions of the bill voted against the procedural vote.

Jeremy Butler, chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, called out Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) for switching to a no vote Wednesday.

“After voting to support the #PACTAct and her fellow veterans, Sen. Joni Ernst turned her back on them yesterday and voted NO,” he tweeted. “What happened Senator? Iowa vets are still getting sick and dying from toxic exposures.”

Manchin says he ‘never walked away’ as Democrats push spending deal

Republicans dismissed the notion that the Democrats’ reconciliation deal was the reason for their change.

Wednesday’s failed vote was rooted in the budgetary policy dispute that was first raised last month by Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), who objected to the way the bill would change the accounting of about $400 billion in preexisting veterans spending.

That previously authorized spending had been designated as discretionary — that is, subject to yearly congressional appropriations. But the bill, known as the PACT Act, authorizes $280 billion of new mandatory spending — that is, not subject to yearly appropriations — and also converts the prior $400 billion in authorizations from discretionary to mandatory.

That, Toomey first argued last month, amounts to a budget “gimmick” that could facilitate massive amounts of new appropriated spending: “Why would they do a thing like that?” he said in a June 24 floor speech. “The reason is because that way you create a big gaping hole in the discretionary spending category, which can be filled with another $400 billion of totally unrelated spending — who knows on what.”

In the subsequent weeks, Toomey worked behind the scenes to make his Republican colleagues aware of the issue and pushed to get the prior spending moved back to the discretionary category. But Democrats would not agree to an amendment, so Republicans voted en masse against advancing the bill Wednesday to force the issue.

“The senior Senator for Pennsylvania has an amendment that would ensure we do not just apply a financial Band-Aid to the problem but actually fix the underlying accounting issue,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday in a speech on the Senate floor.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 GOP leader, said Thursday that the lopsided GOP vote was “separate” from any backlash to the Manchin-Schumer deal, but he said the sore feelings could make it more difficult to find a solution. “Obviously, it doesn’t help,” he said.

After the failed vote Wednesday, Toomey said an amendment could allow the bill to be quickly passed: “My concern about this bill has nothing to do with the purpose of the bill,” he said. “It is a budgetary gimmick that has the intent of making it possible to have a huge explosion in unrelated spending — $400 billion.”

But Democrats said the effort to amend the bill amounted to political games. Tester rebutted Toomey on Wednesday, saying it was outlandish to think that Congress would ever spend that amount of money on unrelated programs through the bipartisan appropriations process.

“Make no mistake about this, the American people are sick and tired of the games that go on in this body,” he said. “We can make up all sorts of excuses about how this is going to move money around, but — let me tell you something — we are the ones who decide that. If we want to move money around, we will; if we don’t, we won’t. In the meantime, let’s pass this bill.”

Toomey also rejected the notion that the GOP action was in response to the Manchin-Schumer deal.

“That’s so absurd and dishonest for anybody to suggest that has anything to do with BBB,” he said, referring to an earlier iteration known as Build Back Better. “Who knew about BBB, you know, previous weeks when I’ve been raising this issue for all this time? I’m very clearly on record about this. So someone has to be willfully ignorant of the facts or dishonest to make that charge.”

The question now is whether the bill can make it to Biden’s desk, and when. After their news conference Thursday, veterans’ advocates and families moved quickly, showing up at the offices of each Republican who voted to block the legislation and demanding meetings with the senators and their staffs.

Tom Porter, executive vice president for government relations at IAVA, predicted that despite the GOP’s concern about cost, the senators will bow to the political reality that “nobody is going to slap you around for spending money on sick veterans.”

“We’re going to win this, but it just isn’t going to be as pretty as we had hoped,” he said.

Late Thursday, Schumer said the Senate would try again on Monday night to advance the bill.

Lisa Rein contributed to this report.

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