WASHINGTON (The Hill) — Republican lawmakers blocked passage of a bill in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday that expands healthcare coverage for military veterans who were exposed to toxins and burn pits during their service. All Democrats and eight Republicans voted for the Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act, but the 55 yes votes fell short of the 60 needed to end a filibuster in the Senate. Three senators did not vote.
The PACT Act, which the House passed earlier this month, would enable additional healthcare coverage for more than 3 million veterans who were exposed to toxic burn pits and Vietnam-era veterans exposed to the deadly herbicide Agent Orange.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) said on the Senate floor that he didn’t support the bill because it would create $400 billion in unrelated spending, which he called a “budgetary gimmick.” “My concern about this bill has nothing to do with the purpose of the bill,” Toomey said. “This budgetary gimmick is so unrelated to the actual veterans issue that has to do with burn pits, that it’s not even in the House version of this bill.”
Although Toomey urged his colleagues to immediately fix the issue, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) accused Toomey of “having a problem” with supporting the country’s veterans. “If you have the guts to send somebody to war, then you better have the guts to take care of them when they get home,” Tester said. “If we don’t take care of our veterans when they come home, they’re going to say, ‘Why should I ever sign the dotted line. Because the promises I made and the promises the country made, only half that deal is being respected.'”
The House passed the PACT Act by a 342-88 vote on July 13, about a month after the Senate passed the bill by a vote of 84-14. The Senate had to retake the bill up on Wednesday because the House passed some minor changes in its version.
The legislation adds 23 toxic and burn pit exposure conditions to the Department of Veterans Affairs database while expanding care for post-9/11 veterans who were exposed to the burn pits. The burn pits were used for the combustion of medical waste, human waste, and other waste needed for disposal. Exposures to those toxins can lead to asthma, rhinitis, and cancer.
It also opens up care for veterans in the Vietnam-war era who were exposed to Agent Orange in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa, and Johnston Atoll. Existing coverage for veterans exposed to toxins forces them to prove they got their illness or malady during their time in service and take additional steps that ultimately limit their coverage.
While Toomey said he supported the bill, he argued lawmakers should work to curb wasteful spending amid high inflation. “We’ve been spending money like no one’s ever imagined,” Toomey said. “I would stress there’s a very easy path to a very big vote in favor of this bill [but] let’s fix this problem.”