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Veterans and their loved ones gathered in Washington on Thursday for the long-awaited celebration.
The Senate is finally poised to pass a bill providing health care and benefits to millions of veterans injured by exposure to toxins ranging from Agent Orange in Vietnam to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, in a surprise move, 25 Republican senators blocked the measure on Wednesday — even though they voted in favor of it just a month ago.
known as The PACT Act, the bill would no longer force generations of veterans to prove that their illnesses were caused by toxic exposures suffered in the military in order to get VA coverage. It was billed as the largest care expansion in VA history and was expected to cost $280 billion over ten years.
Activists have spent a decade campaigning for such an expansion – during that time they lost most of themselves, including Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson, named after the bill. He served near the burn pit during deployments to Kosovo and Iraq with the Ohio National Guard and died in 2020 of a rare form of cancer.
The bill—like many issues related to veterans’ health care—gathered deep bipartisan support, and easily It passed the Senate By a vote of 84-14 in June. But a technical error forced another vote, this time with more than two dozen Republicans switching sides. The final score It was 55-42 (with three senators abstaining), falling short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.
Veterans groups, family members, longtime attorney Jon Stewart and several Democratic lawmakers gathered outside the U.S. Capitol to express their anger after Thursday’s vote.
“They kept their vows! These people thought they could finally breathe,” Stewart said. “You think that because the Pact Act is passed, their problem ends? All it means is that they don’t have to decide between cancer drugs and their homes.”
Sen. John Tester (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, accused Senate Republicans of turning their backs on veterans and their families. in what he called impermissible “face” to the military.
“My colleagues can make all sorts of excuses for why they decided to change their vote on this bill, but the bottom line is that veterans will suffer and die for those excuses, and that’s why we have this bill,” he said.
Who changed their votes – and why
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) opposed the bill and voted against it both times.
In the comments on the Senate floorhe criticized it as a “budget gimmick” that would create $400 billion in unrelated spending by moving it from a discretionary category to a mandatory category. It was reported from his office his proposed technical fix would not reduce any costs for veterans or limit the expansion of care.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said he supported the substance of the bill but supported the “accounting gimmick” and accused Senator Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of trying to block Toomey’s amendment.
But those same spending concerns weren’t an initial concern for more than two dozen Republicans, who voted last month only to dramatically reverse their position. They are: Sens. John Barrasso, Marsha Blackburn, Roy Blunt, Mike Brown, Bill Cassidy, John Cornyn, Tom Cotton, Kevin Cramer, Ted Cruz, Joni Ernst, Deb Fischer, Bill Hagerty, Josh Hawley, Cindy Hyde-Smith, Jim Inhofe, Ron Johnson, John Kennedy, Roger Marshall, Mitch McConnell, Rob Portman, Ben Sasse, Tim Scott, Rick Scott, Dan Sullivan and Todd Young. In addition, Senators Steve Daines and Roger Wicker voted against the bill after abstaining in June.
“Everybody has pictures on their Facebook pages with veterans,” said Susan Zeier, Heath Robinson’s mother-in-law, as her 9-year-old grandson cried nearby. “Well, they don’t support veterans. If you don’t vote for this bill, you don’t support veterans.”
Some of those senators are veterans.
“Promises were made and promises were broken,” said Christina Keenan of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “Sens. Cotton, Ernst, Sullivan are veterans and they are delaying health care for some of the men and women they served with.”
Ernst’s office said his opposition was due to a budget issue, while others did not respond to NPR’s request for comment.
Some Democratic lawmakers offered alternative explanations for their colleagues’ sudden switch, noting that it came shortly after they agreed among themselves on a separate reconciliation bill.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said in the statement The “charitable explanation” is that Republicans have simply changed their minds, alternatively that they are “mad that Democrats are on the verge of passing climate change legislation and have decided to take their anger out on vulnerable veterans.”
“Anyway, it’s not a good day for veterans in this country,” he added.
Talkative Thursday press conferenceSen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) called the situation “literally the worst form of overt politicization I’ve ever seen” and called on people to make sure those 25 senators “understand that their veterans just got a death sentence. They don’t have the health care they deserve.”
“We had strong bipartisan support for this bill. And at the 11th hour, Senator Toomey decided he wanted to rewrite the bill,” he said. “How he convinced 25 of his colleagues to change their vote, I don’t know. What the hell? How does this happen? How do you change your mind when you’re making a law that’s going to save lives? It makes no sense. It’s an outrage and there needs to be accountability.”
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What veterans’ advocates are saying and what happens next
Veterans groups and activists have criticized Senate Republicans for blocking the measure and vowed to continue lobbying for it.
Many rose to the podium Thursday press conference demanding accountability and further action by urging lawmakers not to go on August recess until they can pass a bill.
Sumer said he would schedule another procedural vote for Monday.
Bob Carey of the Independence Foundation, a veterans service organization, urged senators to stay the night and the weekend if necessary, even offering to bring coffee, donuts and barbecue if it would help get the job done quickly.
“People tell us we can get through it in September or during the lame duck,” he said. “When you have cancer, when you’re sick, a month, two months is literally and figuratively a lifetime. We have to get through it now.”
Tom Porter, executive vice president of government affairs for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, noted that many of the 25 senators had issued press releases announcing their earlier votes in support of the veterans, only to reverse them.
Stewart, a former talk show host turned high-profile veterans’ advocate, blasted Republican senators in an angry, insult-filled speech.
Stewart noted at one point that the lawmakers who spoke were likely enjoying air conditioning indoors, ignoring the veterans — at least one of whom was wearing an oxygen tube — who spent more than an hour braving the sweltering heat to make their point.
He also criticized Toomey’s characterization of the bill’s spending provision as a “floating fund,” saying the U.S. has larger funds to support its defense budget and military operations abroad — even without the safeguards.
“You don’t support the troops,” he said. “You support the war machine.”