A burn pit at a command outpost in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate could be on track to advance a bill as soon as Tuesday that would provide veterans exposed to toxic substances overseas with health care and benefits, after a weekend in which outraged veterans camped out on the steps of the Capitol to protest a delay in the legislation.
A Senate Republican aide who discussed ongoing talks on background said Monday morning that supporters expect at least 60 senators will vote to get past the chamber’s legislative filibuster during a Tuesday vote. That would likely set the bill up for passage by a simple majority later this week.
Still unclear is whether there will be a separate vote on an amendment to the bill pushed by Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey.
Negotiations over Toomey’s amendment were ongoing Monday, according to the Senate GOP aide.
The measure, which the Senate voted 84-14 to pass in June, stalled last week after a group of 25 Republicans switched their votes to block the measure over concerns from Toomey about how some of the spending would be classified.
Veterans organizations decried those lawmakers for blocking the bill and called on them to support the legislation during a press conference last Thursday. Some Democrats also accused Republicans of switching their votes in anger after Senate Democrats unexpectedly unveiled a reconciliation bill including prescription drug reform, corporate tax cuts and climate change initiatives.
Veterans set up a vigil next to the Capitol to draw attention to the stalemate and encourage lawmakers to support the legislation. Veterans advocate and comedian Jon Stewart has been harshly critical of Republicans who switched their votes.
Ending a filibuster
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had said Thursday that he planned to hold a second procedural vote on the measure Monday evening to give Republicans another chance to support the bill and end the filibuster.
Schumer had also said he’d hold a vote on Toomey’s proposed changes to the bill with a 60-vote threshold for adoption.
“We will give Sen. Toomey a right to bring his amendment to the floor and try to get the votes for it,” Schumer said Thursday.
One question would be whether Toomey wants to set the threshold for adoption of the amendment at a simple majority vote and not at the 60 votes Schumer has offered for consideration.
If the Senate were to change the legislation in any way, such as by adopting the Toomey amendment, it would need to go back to the U.S. House, which is currently on its August recess, for final approval. President Joe Biden has been very much in favor of the bill and is expected to sign it into law.
3.5 million veterans helped
If passed by Congress, the measure, sponsored by Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran, would provide about 3.5 million veterans with health care and benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to address illnesses that were likely caused by exposure to toxic substances while deployed.
The package would help veterans exposed to burn pits get medical care and other benefits without having to jump through hoops to try to prove their illnesses are linked to their deployments.
Burn pits were often used during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Biden has repeatedly called on Congress to address the short- and long-term health impacts they’ve had on veterans.
“Our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan faced many dangers,” Biden said during his State of the Union speech in March. “One was stationed at bases and breathing in toxic smoke from ‘burn pits’ that incinerated wastes of war — medical and hazard material, jet fuel, and more.”
“When they came home, many of the world’s fittest and best trained warriors were never the same,” Biden added. “Headaches. Numbness. Dizziness. A cancer that would put them in a flag-draped coffin.”
Biden has often cited burn pits as the reason his son, Beau, died of brain cancer.
Biden said during his speech that while he didn’t “know for sure if a burn pit was the cause of his brain cancer” he was “committed to finding out everything” possible about how they’ve impacted soldiers since their deployments.
The legislation the Senate is expected to vote on again Tuesday would guarantee those veterans health care and benefits, preventing them from having to try to link their illness to the toxic exposure.
It would also expand presumptions for veterans exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical the U.S. military used during the Vietnam War. American Samoa, Cambodia, Guam, Johnston Atoll, Laos and Thailand would all be added to the list of locations where veterans are presumed to have been exposed to the chemical.
The Senate originally voted to pass the measure on an overwhelmingly bipartisan 84-14 basis in June, but needed to revote on the measure after the U.S. House had to make a technical change to the legislation.
The section that Toomey objects to was in the legislation the first time the U.S. Senate voted to approve the package.
Toomey, who voted against the bill that first time around, said in a statement at the time that “the Department of Veterans Affairs already has the authority to ensure veterans receive this care where the evidence has established a connection to their service.”
“Instead, the PACT Act goes far beyond, substituting Congress’ political judgement in place of available evidence and including unnecessary changes to longstanding budget rules to enable hundreds of billions in additional spending on unrelated purposes.”
The unsuccessful procedural vote on the bill last week was 55-42, but Schumer switched his vote from yes to no so that he could easily bring the measure back up again.
Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia were absent last week as was centrist Alaskan Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, all three of whom supported the bill during the first vote. Leahy was recovering from a broken hip and Manchin and Murkowski had tested positive for COVID-19.
If all three of those lawmakers return this week and continue supporting the bill, that means supporters of the legislation would need to sway just one Republican to switch back to supporting the legislation for it to have the necessary 60 votes to get past a filibuster.
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