US Senate in turnaround backs aid for burnt-out veterans
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate on Tuesday passed bipartisan legislation that would provide health care and benefits to millions of veterans exposed to toxic substances while deployed overseas, after many Republicans changed their vote and decided to support the legislation again.
The change came after days of protests and vigils outside the U.S. Capitol, in the heat and rain, by veterans outraged by the delay in passing the $280 billion measure due to objections from the senator of Pennsylvania Pat Toomey. Veterans’ advocacy groups also strongly criticized the delay.
The 86-11 vote on the PACT Act, named for the late Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson of the Ohio National Guard, sends the bill to President Joe Biden for his signature. The 11 votes against the bill all came from Republicans, including Mike Crapo of Idaho, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Toomey.
Republican senators who changed their votes from no last week to yes on Tuesday included: Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, Roy Blunt and Josh Hawley of Missouri, Mike Braun and Todd Young of Indiana, Richard Burr of North Carolina , Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy from Louisiana, Steve Daines from Montana, Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse from Nebraska, Ron Johnson from Wisconsin, Roger Marshall from Kansas, Rob Portman from Ohio, Rick Scott from Florida and Dan Sullivan from Alaska .
Biden, who has repeatedly called on Congress to address the lack of protections for veterans and their families, is expected to sign the legislation.
Democratic Montana Senator Jon Tester, chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, urged senators to support the package ahead of the floor vote, saying the legislation was assembled seamlessly with no surprises.
“I would ask my fellow senators when they come to vote – think of the veterans standing in front of the Capitol here, think of the veterans from your home country, think of the veterans you met while on active duty on your CoDels and remember them, and do the right thing,” Tester said, referring to congressional delegations going to war zones.
Republican Kansas Senator Jerry Moran, a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, also called for support for the measure, saying it would “provide long-awaited health care and benefits to the 3.5 million veterans after September 11 who were exposed to combustion sources”. as well as health care for “Vietnam veterans and those who served in Southeast Asia suffering from Agent Orange exposure.”
Moran and Tester had worked together on the legislation for years.
fight for health care
The bill’s passage marks the end of a years-long struggle by veterans, family members and veterans’ service organizations to get the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to provide health care. and benefits to soldiers exposed to the sources of combustion in Afghanistan and Iraq as well. as Agent Orange in Vietnam.
Currently, veterans must try to prove to the federal government that their illnesses are related to their military service in order to qualify, an undertaking that has been particularly difficult for many, including those who have died in the meantime.
The measure which authorized Congress on Tuesday would change that by adding 23 illnesses to the list of toxic exposure-related conditions presumed to be related to military service.
The package would direct more resources to VA health care centers, employees and claims processing, as well as federal research into toxic exposure.
And the legislation would expand presumptions for veterans exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. American Samoa, Cambodia, Guam, Johnston Atoll, Laos and Thailand would all be added to the list of places where veterans are believed to have been exposed to the chemical.
Long voting history
He then hit a big speed bump in this chamber as Veterans Affairs Committee leaders debated behind closed doors how to approach a provision that sought to increase the number of health care providers in rural or very rural.
The bill’s clause would have allowed the VA to buy out some health care providers from their contracts if they agreed to work in clinics in those rural areas for at least four years. But because the legislation proposed to exempt that contract buyout money from tax, it was met with objection by the House Ways and Means Committee, which cited what is known as a “blue slip” problem, since the tax provisions must begin in the United States House.
Lawmakers chose to remove that section from the measure, repackage it in another bill, and put it on the floor of the house, where the members vote 342-88 on July 13 to return the legislation to the US Senate for final approval.
The bill – identical to the version already approved by 84 senators except for the deleted section on contract buyout – was to quickly clear the US Senate.
But a procedural vote on the bill failed last week after 25 Republicans went from supporting the measure to blocking it. The vote was 55 to 42, just short of the 60 senators needed to overcome the chamber’s legislative filibuster.
Toomey, who will retire at the end of the year, organized GOP senators to reverse their votes on the legislation, saying he was frustrated with a “budget trick” that has been in the legislation since its introduction.
Toomey said after he and fellow Republicans blocked the legislation he had ‘no quarrel’ with the bill creating $278.5 billion in new spending over the next decade that would be classified as “compulsory”.
Mandatory federal government spending generally runs on autopilot and includes funding for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Discretionary spending must be approved through the annual supply process that begins with the President’s budget request and often ends with the consolidation of the government’s 12 funding bills into an omnibus spending package of over 1,000 billions of dollars.
Toomey argued last week that his opposition to the bill stems from a clause that would “authorize $400 billion over the next 10 years of existing spending…to be shifted from discretionary to mandatory.”
But last week’s unsuccessful closure vote also came shortly after Senate Democrats announced that they had reached an agreement on a surprise reconciliation package it would allow Medicare to negotiate some prescription drug prices, address climate change and energy policy, and change some of the country’s tax laws.
The reconciliation deal had lasted more than a year and included several stops and starts as West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III and Schumer tried to reach a deal that could win the support of all 50 Senate Democrats.
Republicans vehemently oppose the deal, but cannot block it in the Senate because Democrats are using the budget reconciliation process to push it through Congress.
GOP back on board
GOP frustration with the veterans health care bill seemed to fade on Monday when some Republicans have reported they would once again support the bill.
The change of heart also followed an outcry of frustration from veteransadvocates and service organizations – some of whom began camping on the steps of the US Capitol over the weekend and continued to protest in a grassy area a few feet from the building this week.
Veterans lawyer and comedian Jon Stewart also joined the protest and late night show host Stephen Colbert went after GOP Sense. Ted Cruz from Texas and Daines for a triumphant punch after the failure of the bill.
On Tuesday, Senate Republicans were also able to negotiate for the chamber to pass three amendments to the legislation, all of which failed to garner the 60 votes needed for passage.
A Toomey proposal that would have addressed his concerns over the classification of mandatory spending on some package funding failed in a 47-48 vote.
Tester wrote in a letter he sent to senators on Tuesday that Toomey’s amendment “would risk hurting veterans and tying the hands of Congress.”
“It would arbitrarily cap the number of veterans exposed to toxic substances who would benefit from the legislation and create a scenario in which VA would run out of funds to support these veterans year after year,” Tester wrote.
Toomey argued from the floor that his amendment “does not affect the amount users can spend, it only limits the amount that is treated as a mandatory expense.”
Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul’s amendment that would have paid for the legislation by reprogramming foreign aid spending failed to pass after getting just seven votes in favor and 90 in opposition.
The Blackburn Amendment fails
Another amendment, from Blackburn, would include access to community care for veterans exposed to toxic substances and was defeated 48-47.
“If PACT is going to work for veterans, we need to step up and give them access to community care,” Blackburn said ahead of the vote, arguing that veterans in his state are waiting too long to get appointments with veterans. Primary Care Physicians at VA Facilities.
Veterans, under her amendment, would have had the option of “going to a doctor in their community for that primary care appointment so they could start that process,” she said.
“It will help them avoid long wait times, arbitrary hurdles, and it will allow them to seek that care out in the community if they can get it faster than making that trip to the VA,” Blackburn added.
Tester urged senators to reject all three amendments, saying any changes to the legislation would have sent it back to the U.S. House for another vote, further delaying care for veterans exposed to toxic substances.
“I hope we don’t change it to have to go back to the House because that, again, would delay benefits and do real damage to this bill,” Tester said.