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Senate Republicans block bill to help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits

Jon Stewart at event for the PACT Act: "I'm used to the hypocrisy…I'm used to the lies...I'm used to the cowardice...I'm used to all of it, but I am not used to the cruelty."  (C-SPAN)
By Eugene Scott and Mike DeBonis Washington Post

Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked a bill to help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits weeks after the measure initially sailed through the Senate with 84 votes, angering Democrats, veterans groups and comedian Jon Stewart, a leading proponent to aid the community.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, was particularly incensed by the turn of events. Tester, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., other lawmakers and Stewart on Thursday morning joined veterans outside the Capitol - who originally came to Washington to see the bill pass - to assail the GOP.

“It just makes the gut punch that more devastating,” Stewart said, given the number of veterans who came to Washington hoping the bill would pass. “Their constituents are dying.”

“This is a disgrace,” he added.

The bill would significantly change how the Department of Veterans Affairs cares for veterans who were exposed to toxic substances by compelling the VA to presume that certain illnesses are linked to exposure to hazardous waste incineration, mostly focused on the issue of burn pits from recent wars. That would remove the burden of proof from the injured veterans.

Democrats accused Republicans of voting against it in retaliation for a deal announced earlier by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., that will allow Democrats to move ahead on an economic, health-care and climate package without Republican votes.

Republicans say that’s not true. They point instead to a budgetary policy dispute between the two parties.

Tester shared his frustration and confusion with Republican lawmakers who supported the bill a few weeks ago changing their position and voting against moving forward on Wednesday.

“I’ve been in this business for twenty-five years in the state legislature and here, and I have never seen anything that’s happened like what happened yesterday,” he said. “And what compounds it and makes it that much more difficult is we in essence, yesterday took benefits away from the people who have been impacted by a war that we set off.”

“And we turn our backs and say, ‘no, we’re going to find an excuse to vote against our veterans while we wave the flag, talking about how great our fighting men and women are,” Tester added.

Pelosi said Republicans’ actions are particularly unusual given that helping veterans usually attracts significant bipartisan support.

“I’m very sad that 80% of the Republicans in the United States Senate said no to veterans yesterday,” she said Thursday. “Eighty percent. Forty votes, no.”

“The veterans have waited too long, long overdue,” Pelosi added. “Three and a half million veterans will benefit, have the possibility of benefiting from this legislation. Why subject them to this?”

Veterans - some in shirts emblazoned with the American flag and others wearing masks — held up signs. One read “Sick and Dying Veterans Need Healthcare” while another held the GOP responsible with the words “Veterans blood is on Republican hands.”

A version of the legislation was approved by the Senate by a vote of 84-14 in June. It was back in the Senate on Wednesday because the House made some modest changes before passing the bill on a 342-88 vote about two weeks ago.

Tester went on Twitter after the vote to voice his disgust with the outcome.

“In an eleventh-hour act of cowardice, Republicans chose today to rob generations of toxic-exposed veterans across this country of the health care and benefits they’ve earned and so desperately need,” he tweeted. “Make no mistake -the American people are sick and tired of these games.”

On Wednesday, the revised measure drew 55 votes in the Senate - short of the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster. Twenty-five Republicans who previously supported versions of the bill voted against on the procedural vote.

Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, called out Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, for switching to a no vote Wednesday.

“After voting to support the #PACTAct and her fellow veterans, Sen. Joni Ernst turned her back on them yesterday and voted NO,” he tweeted. “What happened Senator? Iowa vets are still getting sick and dying from toxic exposures.”

Republicans dismissed the notion that the Democrats’ reconciliation deal was the reason for their change.

Wednesday’s failed vote was rooted in the budgetary policy dispute that was first raised last month by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who objected to the way the bill would change the accounting of some $400 billion in preexisting veterans spending.

That previously authorized spending had been designated as discretionary — that is, subject to yearly congressional appropriations. The PACT Act, however, authorizes $280 billion of new mandatory spending — that is, not subject to yearly appropriations — and also converts the prior $400 billion in authorizations from discretionary to mandatory.

That, Toomey first argued last month, amounts to a budget “gimmick” that could facilitate massive amounts of new appropriated spending: “Why would they do a thing like that?” he said in a June 24 floor speech. “The reason is because that way you create a big gaping hole in the discretionary spending category, which can be filled with another $400 billion of totally unrelated spending — who knows on what.”

In the subsequent weeks, Toomey worked behind the scenes to make his Republican colleagues aware of the issue and pushed to get the prior spending moved back to the discretionary category. But Democrats would not agree to an amendment, and so Republicans voted en masse against advancing the bill Wednesday in order to force the issue.

“The senior Senator for Pennsylvania has an amendment that would ensure we do not just apply a financial band-aid to the problem, but actually fix the underlying accounting issue,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Thursday in a speech on the Senate floor.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the No. 2 GOP leader, said Thursday that the lopsided GOP vote was “separate” from any backlash to the Manchin-Schumer deal, but he said the sore feelings could make it more difficult to find a solution. “Obviously it doesn’t help,” he said.

After the failed vote Wednesday, Toomey said an amendment could allow the bill to be quickly passed: “My concern about this bill has nothing to do with the purpose of the bill,” he said. “It is a budgetary gimmick that has the intent of making it possible to have a huge explosion in unrelated spending — $400 billion.”

But Democrats said the effort to amend the bill amounted to political games. Tester rebutted Toomey Wednesday, saying it was outlandish to think that Congress would ever spend that amount of money on unrelated programs through the bipartisan appropriations process.

“Make no mistake about this, the American people are sick and tired of the games that go on in this body,” he said. “We can make up all sorts of excuses about how this is going to move money around, but - let me tell you something-we are the ones who decide that. If we want to move money around, we will; if we don’t, we won’t. In the meantime, let’s pass this bill.”

Toomey rejected the notion that the GOP action was in response to the Manchin-Schumer deal.

“That’s so absurd and dishonest for anybody to suggest that has anything to do with BBB. Who knew about BBB, you know, previous weeks when I’ve been raising this issue for all this time? I’m very clearly on record about this. So someone has to be willfully ignorant of the facts or dishonest to make that charge,” he said.