WASHINGTON – After an impasse with a South Carolina senator was broken, the Senate passed a historic bill Wednesday by unanimous consent that would help thousands of sick Marine veterans and their families who were exposed to contaminated water at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Sens. Patty Murray, a Washington state Democrat who’s the head of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, brokered the deal on the Senate floor moments before Murray was expected to force DeMint’s hand by publicly calling for a unanimous-consent vote on the measure.
Instead, she announced that they’d reached a “gentlemen’s agreement” on modifications DeMint had been seeking in the bill.
“These families have waited for decades to get the assistance that they need and should not be forced to wait any longer,” Murray said from the Senate floor.
DeMint said he was always supportive of the “underlying bill,” but he’d put a procedural hold on it and charged that there weren’t enough safeguards to prevent fraud by those whose illnesses weren’t due to contaminated water.
“The modification would make sure the veterans who deserve these benefits get them and they’re not taken advantage of by fraud from others who don’t deserve it,” he said from the floor.
Last month, the House of Representatives and Senate veterans committees agreed on a bill that would provide health care to sick military personnel and their family members provided they’d lived or worked at least 30 days on the base from 1957 to 1987. They also must have a condition listed within the bill that’s associated with exposure to these chemicals.
The agreed-on changes add language from existing laws that provides exceptions if a doctor can prove that the person didn’t contract the illness from the base’s contaminated water – for example, if the person had the illness before being at Camp Lejeune.
The changes ended a standoff between DeMint and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who was the lead sponsor of the measure.