WASHINGTON — U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough expressed confidence the Senate has enough votes to pass a bill to provide health care and benefits to 3.5 million veterans exposed to toxic burn pits, even after Republicans stalled the legislation.
Forty-one Republican senators switched tactics and moved to force a debate on amendments that would reduce future mandatory spending in the bill. The majority of those lawmakers had supported an essentially identical version of the bill last month.
“There’s been one change since then” on “something completely unrelated to this issue,” McDonough said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “So if everybody does what they did before, this has 84 votes, so I think they should just get on with it. Have the vote.”
The bill has drawn support from comedian Jon Stewart and President Joe Biden, who told veterans protesting for expanded benefits outside the U.S. Capitol that he’ll invite them to the White House once his Covid-19 infection clears. Some veterans exposed to burn pits, used to burn trash at military sites, have reported illnesses ranging from respiratory difficulties to cancer.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he will bring the legislation back to the floor this week, and that he’ll allow Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey to bring an amendment addressing his party’s concerns for debate.
Toomey, who has consistently voted against the bill, says it creates an additional $400 billion in discretionary spending unrelated to veterans, allowing Congress to hide a spending binge.
Toomey said Sunday he’s sticking to his demand for a fix. “We could bang that out tomorrow night, literally,” he said on CNN.
Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, said Toomey’s budget concerns will be addressed.
“Pat’s going to get his amendment and then we will see where it goes,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
The House passed the bill on a 342-88 vote in mid-July. An issue for Senate Republicans are nontaxable benefits. The Constitution requires all bills with tax items to originate in the House.
Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican who initially voted for the legislation but switched his position, said ultimately he believes the health care funding will pass.
“We have to stand by our veterans who have been exposed to these chemicals,” Cassidy said on ABC’s “This Week.” “There was a drafting error, a $400 billion drafting error.”
McDonough pushed back on the $400 billion cited by Toomey, saying “you won’t see it” in the bill. It might be “deep in some charts” in the back of the Congressional Budget Office’s report on the legislation’s budgetary impact, he said.
A spending cap proposed by Toomey’s amendment could eventually amount to “rationing care for vets, which is something I just can’t sign on to,” McDonough said.
The Department of Veterans Affairs opened a voluntary registry in 2014 for service members who might have been exposed to airborne hazards from burn pits.
The issue is personal for President Joe Biden, who lost his son Beau to brain cancer. Beau, who was a major in the Delaware National Guard, served overseas near burn pits, and Biden has suggested that the toxins from the pits may have caused the disease.
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