The Senate passes help for veterans exposed to toxins, after a reversal drew fury
The Senate voted 86-11 on Tuesday to pass a bill to provide additional disability benefits and medical care to the estimated 3.5 million US military veterans exposed to unsafe smoke emitted from war zone “burn pits.”
The bill previously was blocked last week by 41 Senate Republicans who said it was drafted in such a way that it could cause as much as $400 billion in wasteful government spending over 10 years.
Former Comedy Central host Jon Stewart sought to shame Republicans into dropping their opposition to the bill as currently written, which they ultimately did.
“Tell someone with cancer that’s been fighting this for years, that eventually they’ll get the help that they need. That is not an acceptable answer,” Stewart said outside the Capitol in one of his public appearances.
President Biden frequently says that his son Beau Biden’s death from brain cancer in 2015 may have been the result of exposure to “burn pits” during the Iraq War, giving the cause greater political currency.
The House previously passed the so-called PACT Act in a 342-88 vote, meaning it will now go to Biden for his signature.
The legislation funds enhanced medical care for up to 10 years after veterans leave the military, up from 5 years, and would allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to more easily approve disability insurance claims from veterans who have respiratory issues or cancer that may be linked to burn pits — a significant change because 70 percent of such disability claims reportedly are denied currently.
Republican critics in the Senate had urged an overhaul of the bill so that an estimated $400 billion in spending would not become mandatory.
“We have to stand by our veterans who have been exposed to these chemicals,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said in a recent ABC interview. “There was a drafting error, a $400 billion drafting error.”
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who had led the pushback from fiscal hawks, had said, “the PACT Act as written includes a budget gimmick that would allow $400 billion of current law spending to be moved from the discretionary to the mandatory spending category.”
Toomey argued “it would enable an additional $400 billion in future discretionary spending completely unrelated to veterans [and] by failing to remove this gimmick, Congress would effectively be using an important veterans care bill to hide a massive, unrelated spending binge.”
Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough denied it would cause wasteful unrelated spending.