The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jon Stewart rips Ted Cruz for rejecting veterans’ burn-pits aid bill

Jon Stewart speaks to reporters before a news conference with lawmakers, veterans and advocates on toxic exposure legislation on July 28 on Capitol Hill. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

In the days since Senate Republicans blocked a bill to help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jon Stewart has been irate at the GOP for rejecting a measure that initially sailed through the chamber. Stewart, a leading proponent of aid for the veterans, has reached out to conservative audiences on Fox News and Newsmax this week to call out Republican senators for what the comedian has described as “a disgrace.”

So when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said Stewart was wrong about the bill and accused Democrats of playing a “budgetary trick” in the PACT Act, which Cruz voted against despite saying he supported the bill and veterans, Stewart wasn’t having it.

“What Ted Cruz is describing is inaccurate, not true, bull----,” said Stewart in a video posted to Twitter.

Stewart mocked Cruz for arguing that Democrats moved “discretionary” spending in the bill to “mandatory.” Cruz referenced the budget policy dispute that was first raised this 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 to make it not subject to yearly congressional appropriations. Cruz was seen fist-bumping Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) on the Senate floor when Republicans blocked the bill in a celebration that angered Democrats and veterans groups.

Stewart and Democrats have refuted the Republicans’ claims, and the comedian challenged Cruz on Twitter to specifically point out in the bill the $400 billion “blank check or unrelated spending that was added/snuck in.”

“Now, I’m not a big-city, Harvard-educated lawyer, but I can read,” Stewart said in a mockingly bad Southern accent. “It’s always been mandatory spending, so the government can’t just cut off their funding at any point. No trick, no gimmick, been there the whole … time.”

A representative for Stewart did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday. When asked for comment, Cruz spokesman Steve Guest referred The Washington Post to the senator’s video posted to Twitter on Friday night.

“Jon, you’re a funny guy, and I appreciate your engaging on issues of public policy. That’s a good thing,” Cruz said, maintaining that he’s a strong supporter of the bill and the nation’s veterans. “But if you’re going to do so, the facts matter.”

Senate Republicans block bill to help veterans exposed to burn pits

The back-and-forth comes over a bill for veterans’ health care that previously had bipartisan support. The PACT Act 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. The bill would remove the burden of proof from the injured veterans.

But weeks after a version of the legislation was approved by the Senate by a vote of 84-14 on June 16, the bill faced a different fate shortly after the House made modest changes. Toomey claimed that the PACT Act authorizes $280 billion of new mandatory spending — which is not subject to yearly appropriations — and also converts the prior $400 billion in authorizations from discretionary to mandatory. The senator argued last month that the provision was a budget “gimmick” that could facilitate massive amounts of new appropriated spending — a claim that Democrats have rejected.

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)

On Wednesday, 25 Republicans reversed course from their vote just a month before. The final vote was 55-to-42, falling short of the 60 votes needed to overcome the filibuster. Three senators abstained.

Among the Republicans who changed course was Cruz, whose fist bump with Daines was met with backlash from liberals as it went viral on social media.

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

Stewart, who called the way Republicans rejected the measure a “gut punch,” was on a media blitz this week on channels like CNN, Fox News and Newsmax that had him ripping the 25 GOP senators for their change of heart on the bill. He took aim at Cruz on Friday in an appearance on MSNBC.

“The most despicable part of this whole thing is watching on the Senate floor Ted Cruz fist-bumping and then patting each other on the back when they blocked this bill,” Stewart said. He added that Toomey and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) were “celebrating their victory over veterans with cancer.”

Later that day, Cruz was approached by TMZ at Reagan National Airport about Stewart’s comments.

“He’s talking about the PACT Act, which is a bill I support. It’s a bill most senators support,” Cruz told the outlet. After pointing to the budget “gimmick” cited by Toomey, Cruz said the bill was “part of the out-of-control spending from the left.”

In his expletive-laden video on Twitter, Stewart trolled Cruz and Republicans for suggesting that language was added to the bill by Democrats “or spending fairies.”

“It’s nonsense,” Stewart said. “There’s nothing in the bill that is not related to veterans’ spending. … This is for veterans who suffered health effects from burn pits and other toxins. That is it!”

Cruz, in a video of his own, again cited Toomey’s concern and accused Democrats of altering the bill with “pork that will supercharge inflation.”

“You’re wrong here,” Cruz told Stewart in a tweet.

Fox News’s Jesse Watters joined Cruz in criticizing Stewart for what the host called “ginned-up drama.”

“I’m not going to blame Jon for not knowing all the facts,” Watters said on his Friday show. “Going forward, let’s do this: I’ll do the research and Jon Stewart can handle the farming. It’s better for everybody that way.”

Stewart tweeted that Cruz and Watters were “trying to rally the forces of misinformation to try and kill more vets.” He again challenged the senator from Texas to “pass the bill you already had passed.”

“This isn’t a game,” Stewart wrote. “Real people’s lives hang in the balance…people that fought for your life.”

Eugene Scott and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.