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As the GOP caves, bill to help veterans exposed to toxins passes

It took far more time and effort than it should have, but as NBC News reported, the PACT Act is finally on its way to the White House, where it will receive President Joe Biden’s signature.

The Senate on Tuesday passed legislation expanding lifesaving health care benefits for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. The 86-11 vote came after Republicans agreed to lift their blockade of the popular bill, caving to pressure from more than 60 veterans groups — and comedian Jon Stewart — who had railed against Republicans for days outside the Capitol.

For those who haven’t been following this fight, let’s briefly circle back to our earlier coverage and review how we arrived at this point.

The legislation’s formal name is the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022 (S.3373), but most folks just call it the PACT Act, and it’s tough to argue against its merits.

As we’ve discussed, many U.S. troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan were exposed to toxic smoke from burn pits, which incinerated hazardous materials, including jet fuel and medical waste. Many of the servicemen and women who breathed in fumes from these burn pits returned home and experienced serious symptoms. There are concerns that prolonged exposure to burn pits might even be responsible for giving some veterans cancer.

The point of the PACT Act is simple: It would expand treatment eligibility and ensure these veterans receive proper medical care.

On June 16, the legislation passed the Senate with 84 votes, overcoming opposition from 14 Republicans. After some minor technical fixes unrelated to the scope or implementation of the bill, the measure returned to the chamber last week, in what was expected to be another lopsided vote.

It wasn’t: On a procedural vote that needed 60 senators, the PACT Act fell four votes short, due entirely to Republican opposition. All of a sudden, it was less clear when, or even whether, the legislation would pass.

And that’s when the pushback began.

There’s an assumption in some circles that activism, especially in contemporary politics, just doesn’t generate enough pressure to change lawmakers’ votes. Lawmakers feel so insulated, the argument goes, that individual constituencies and activist efforts can’t sway votes on Capitol Hill in a meaningful way.

The fight over the PACT Act helps prove otherwise. The ferocity of the backlash to Senate Republicans’ votes last week made a powerful difference and played a direct role in getting the bill through Congress.

Indeed, let’s not forget that just seven days ago, 41 Republicans — 25 of whom had previously voted for the same bill — said they were so concerned about an obscure budgetary question that they had to vote against the legislation.

Yesterday, that obscure budgetary went unchanged, at which point GOP senators caved en masse and voted for the bill anyway — raising unavoidable questions about the sincerity of last week’s “concerns.”

For those who enjoy digging in on roll calls — I am, of course, a member of such a group — let’s get into the weeds a little. In all, 11 Senate Republicans — Idaho’s Mike Crapo, Oklahoma’s James Lankford, Utah’s Mike Lee, Wyoming’s Cynthia Lummis, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, Idaho’s James Risch, Utah’s Mitt Romney, Alabama’s Richard Shelby, North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, and Alabama’s Tommy Tuberville — all voted against the bill yesterday. In fact, this same group of 11 senators have been consistent in voting against the PACT Act at every turn.

Meanwhile, three Senate Republicans — North Carolina’s Richard Burr, South Dakota’s Mike Rounds, and South Dakota’s John Thune — voted against the bill in June, but ended up reversing course late yesterday.

But there’s one group I was especially interested in: the 30 GOP senators who flipped from “no” to “yes” since last week, despite the fact that the bill didn’t change: John Barrasso of Wyoming, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Mike Braun of Indiana, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, John Cornyn, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, Ted Cruz of Texas, Steve Daines of Montana, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, John Kennedy of Louisiana, Roger Marshall of Kansas, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Rob Portman of Ohio, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Rick Scott of Florida, Tim Scott of South Carolina, Dan Sullivan of Alaska, John Thune of South Dakota, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, and Todd Young of Indiana.

I’ll look forward to learning more about their motivations.

As for the underlying bill, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told the New York Daily News, “This is the most significant expansion of veteran health care benefits in generations.”

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