Blind-sided veterans erupted in anger and outrage on Thursday after Senate Republicans suddenly took a widely supported bipartisan measure that would have expanded medical coverage for millions of combatants who were exposed to toxic burn pits while on duty.
Supporters of Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act — or PACT Act — overwhelmingly expected the House-passed bill to make it to the President’s desk for signature.
But in a move that shocked and confused veterans’ groups Wednesday night, 41 Senate Republicans blocked passage of the bill, including 25 who supported it a month ago.
“We really expected yesterday that there would be a procedural vote that would happen easily,” said Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonprofit veterans organization. “That was the absolute expectation.”
The PACT Act would have extended VA eligibility to more than 3.5 million post-9/11 combat veterans who were exposed to toxins during their military service.
The Senate passed the original Bill 84-14 in June. It underwent minor changes when moving into the house, where it passed 342-88. By the time the bill returned to the Senate, the bill hadn’t changed significantly, but the view — and vote — of 25 senators had.
While it’s unclear what prompted the reversal, veterans believe the move was political.
“We’ve seen partisanship and games in Congress for years,” Butler said. “But what’s shocking is that so many senators would literally be willing to gamble so openly with veterans’ lives.”
“They are fabricated reasons to vote against legislation that they literally voted for just last month,” Butler added. “And so it’s really a new low.”
Veterans exposed to toxins during deployments said the lives of sick and dying people who served the nation are at stake.
“It’s annoying. It’s frustrating,” said Tom Porter, 54, who developed asthma after spending a year in Afghanistan with the US Navy Reserve in 2010-11.
In the first week of his deployment, Porter said he suffered a severe reaction with his lungs and was unable to breathe.
Le Roy Torres, 49, who was diagnosed with lung disease and a toxic brain injury after being deployed to Iraq with the US Army, said he was devastated by the bill’s failure and urged lawmakers to act immediately to reconvene.
“I know these senators are preparing for a break. But I didn’t get a break when I was deployed,” he said. “They shouldn’t be allowed to go home until they find out.”
“I was taught in the army not to accept defeat and never to give up,” he added. “I will continue to push this topic.”
Torres’ wife, Rosie, the co-founder and chief executive of the non-profit organization Burn Pits 360, said the 25 senators who reversed their votes “should be ashamed”.
In protest, she and other supporters plan to camp out on the steps of the US Capitol Thursday night.
“These veterans fought for our freedom during the war,” she said. “This is partisan tactics on the backs of sick and dying veterans.”
The PACT Act was named after him Heath Robinson, an Ohio National Guard sergeant who served in Kosovo and Iraq. He died in 2020 from lung cancer, which he attributed to exposure to fire pits.
Open-air fire pits were common on US military bases during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hazardous materials, from electronics and vehicles to human waste, were regularly doused in jet fuel and set on fire, spewing toxic fumes and carcinogens into the air.
Many others have developed cancer, respiratory diseases and other serious illnesses as a direct result of exposure to toxins, veterans’ groups say.
President Joe Biden, who campaigned for the PACT bill, said he believes his late son Beau Biden’s brain tumor was related to exposure to cremation pits while deployed to Iraq in 2008.
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Penn., who voted against the bill in June, remains critical of the bill. Yesterday, after the vote, he said the bill contained a “budget trick” that shifted $400 billion from “discretionary to the mandatory spending category” over 10 years, which he felt was inappropriate. His view did not change in Wednesday’s vote.
However, the views of Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., certainly did.
Johnson voted in favor of the law in June but voted against it on Wednesday. He said in a statement that the law “opens the door to more reckless government spending.”
Why Republicans like Johnson changed their minds a month after the law passed remains unclear, and it was confusing and unclear for veterans and supporters who shared their anger in Washington, DC on Thursday.
Comedian Jon Stewart, who has campaigned for 9/11 first responders and military veterans for years, angered Republican lawmakers Thursday outside the Capitol, angrily describing their rejection of the bill as “an embarrassment to the Senate, to the country, to the founders . “
“Their constituents are dying and they’re going to get it done on the break,” Stewart said in fiery and energetic remarks. “You know, tell her cancer to take a break, tell her cancer to stay home and visit her families. That’s a shame. If this is America first, then it is America [expletive].”
https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/blindsided-veterans-erupt-fury-senate-republicans-suddenly-tank-pact-a-rcna40516 Blind-sided veterans erupt after Senate Republicans suddenly flatten the PACT Act