Senate Republicans burned a bill that would have helped veterans — here’s why

Republicans blocked a bill on Wednesday that many saw as a bipartisan slam dunk, which aimed to expand certain benefits for veterans due to toxic exposure they experienced while deployed, leaving many veterans and their supporters shocked.

The PACT Act, a bill that would have expanded the Department of Veterans Affairs health care to presume veterans whose military service included exposure to burn pits— large trenches dug to burn and dispose of sewage, medical waste and other trash— to be victims of exposure to toxic substances and fumes when they present with certain illnesses. The bill would have removed the burden of proof veterans currently need to show in order to receive assistance.

Both houses of Congress previously passed the bill with the Senate voting 84-14 in June in favor but the 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 Biden.

However, 25 Republican senators flipped their vote and blocked the bill on Wednesday.

Supporters and activists, such as former talk show host John Stewart, who had gathered at the Capitol hoping for a celebration following the bill’s passing instead were met with frustration. On Thursday, Stewart and others joined lawmakers such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to forcefully call out Republicans for voting down the bill.

“They don’t have to hear it, they don’t have to see it, they don’t have to understand that these are human beings. Do we get it yet, these aren’t heroes, these are men and women,” Stewart said in a speech at the Capitol on Thursday.

With the final tally in the Senate on Wednesday at 55-42 (three abstaining) the exact reason why Republicans flipped, they claim has nothing to do with the bill’s focus, but rather how the funds would be allocated and managed.

Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who lead opposition to the bill, expressed his desire for wanting 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. This budgetary gimmick is so unrelated to the actual budgetary issue that has to do with burn pits that it’s not even in the house bill,” Toomey said on the Senate floor on Wednesday.

Toomey told CNN he wants the funding of the bill handled through an annual appropriations process, rather than the current mandatory spending structure.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said he also does not support the ”budgetary gimmick” but does support the bill.

“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. “There is no excuse why the Democratic leader should continue to block Senator Toomey’s commonsense amendment. A bill this important and this bipartisan deserves for us to fix this accounting gimmick, and then it deserves to become law. “

The question remains why the more than two dozen Republicans, many of whom themselves are veterans, voted for it last month but flipped this week. According to some Democrats, the bill was blocked for political benefit.

Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), argues that Republicans alternatively took their anger out from a separate bill on the PACTS Act. Democrats are attempting to push the Inflation Reduction Act, a historic $369 billion to be spent over the next 10 years to address climate change, health care, inflation and taxes.

“The less charitable explanation is this,” Murphy said, on explaining why so many Republicans flipped, “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. Because that’s the other thing that’s changed in the last three weeks. Republicans thought that Democrats weren’t going to be able to pass a bill asking corporations to pay a little bit more, tackling climate change. Yesterday, 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.”

This switch, Democrats say, came as a reaction to the secondary bills, which are expected to be voted on this week.

Democratic candidate for an open Missouri Senate seat, 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 both 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.

Vox’s Li Zhou also recently reported that Republicans do not want the Inflation Reduction Act to pass and need unanimous support to stop it. Given that Biden came out in praise of it, the bill has a high possibility of passing.

What the bill 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 Representative 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 during service.

The bill contains two major components— a grace period for veterans who served near burn pits to get medical care, and legislation 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, 70% of all 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 being exposed to burn pits.

Cancers and other issues that are alleged to be related to burn pits can come years later, as it happened for Sergeant First Class 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, an advocate for burn pit exposure victims who have been denied benefits, attended President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address earlier this year where he 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 healthcare, mental health and homelessness.

The PACT Act bill also plays into a broader conversation that’s happening over veteran’s 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 allows U.S. Army veteran Le Roy Torres to sue the state of Texas after losing his job due to an injury he received while serving.

What’s next?

Activists, lawmakers and veterans alike are demanding further action, with some even calling the vote criminal as they criticize Republicans for stopping the bill.

“Wait a minute. You’re not gonna help our veterans, because we want to: lower the cost of prescription drugs, the cost of health care, to protect the planet. Of course, you don’t agree with any of those things, but would you use that to vote against our veterans? It’s really immoral, almost criminal,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Another procedural vote is set for Monday, but Schumer can technically call the Senate to a vote at any time. In light of the recess beginning on Aug. 5, timeliness will be key.