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Opinion >  Column

Bryan Clark: Our senators are not hypocrites. They consistently voted to deny care to our veterans

If there’s one thing you have to admire in Idaho’s Senate delegation, it’s their consistency.

Unlike many of their Republican colleagues, they didn’t reverse their votes Wednesday on the Honoring our PACT Act, which would provide health care to veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who have developed injuries and diseases related to exposure to burn pits and extend benefits for Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange.

The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly and bipartisanly passed the bill in June. In the House, where it also passed overwhelmingly and bipartisanly, a minor correction was made to the bill, which meant it had to be sent back to the Senate for another procedural vote.

But in between the June vote and Wednesday, there was a political development. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, long a holdout on President Joe Biden’s big spending package, announced he had reached a deal he could support. It would spend billions on climate change and reduce the deficit by raising taxes on the wealthy.

Republicans who oppose this appear to have reacted in an unspeakably callous way: by holding the Honoring our PACT Act hostage. Though 34 Republican senators originally supported the bill, that suddenly dropped to eight on Wednesday, dipping the bill below the filibuster threshold and effectively blocking it.

Senate Republicans may have principled reasons for opposing the Democratic reconciliation package, but turning veterans into a political bargaining chip to try to buy off votes on the spending bill is utterly unconscionable.

But Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo cannot be accused of any such hypocrisy. They did not switch their votes. They simply have shown principled and consistent opposition to providing veterans with adequate health care.

Crapo and Risch have opposed the Honoring our PACT Act from the start. They were among the only 14 votes against the bill in June, and they voted against it again this week.

Now, of course, you could compare these votes to what Crapo and Risch say about veterans. And there you might be tempted to detect a bit of hypocrisy.

“I am proud to promote programs to help service members transition back to civilian life once their tour of service has ended, and to ensure surviving spouses and families of deceased veterans have access to the full benefits promised by the federal government,” wrote Risch in a statement on Veterans Day in 2020.

No mention of caring for veterans injured by duties they were ordered to perform, such as standing guard over or sleeping near pits full of burning trash, human waste, chemicals, fuel, paint and who knows what else. So there’s no hypocrisy in Risch’s vote.

“More than 130,000 veterans and their families call Idaho home,” Crapo wrote on Facebook last Veterans Day. “These brave men and women have sworn an oath to defend the freedoms and liberties we all hold dear. We owe each of our veterans our undying gratitude for their commitment to service and the sacrifices they have made.”

But it’s important to remember that “undying gratitude” and “paying to treat lung damage incurred while deployed overseas” are not the same thing. So there’s no hypocrisy here.

“But it is important we continue to support their service well beyond their deployment,” Crapo wrote in a second Facebook message that Veterans Day. “Ensuring veterans have access to quality care and benefits they have rightfully earned remains a top priority in Congress, and we cannot waver in that endeavor.”

Well, OK. Maybe a little hypocrisy.

Bryan Clark is an opinion writer for the Idaho Statesman based in eastern Idaho.

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