WASHINGTON — The Senate on Tuesday passed legislation that expands life-saving healthcare services for war veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan who are exposed to toxic burn pits.
The 86-11 vote came after Republicans agreed to lift their deadlock on People’s Law and gave in to pressure from more than 60 veterans’ groups — and comedian Jon Stewart — who had ranted against Republicans for days outside the Capitol.
Many of the veterans who camped on the Senate steps despite the heat, humidity and thunderstorms watched the vote from the stands in the Senate Chamber. The bill has already passed the House of Representatives and is now headed to President Joe Biden’s desk for signature.
“This important legislation will help our veterans and their families who are currently fighting their own health battles because they were exposed to toxins from their military service on the first day they signed up,” said Jen Burch, 35, a retired Air Force service sergeant who has numerous medical conditions suffers that she believes were caused by contact with burn pits and open sewage ponds in Afghanistan.
With the passage of the PACT bill, “veterans across America can breathe a sigh of relief,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., said on the floor before meeting with Veterans Affairs Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont Capitol left to thank the vets for their intercession. “The treatment they deserved and needed but were denied because of all sorts of legal impediments and presumptions because of the VA will now be gone.
“Veterans who have been exposed to noxious fumes from fire pits will be treated by the VA as they should have been from the start,” Schumer added.
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa, was one of the Republicans who held back the bill when he called for a vote on his amendment to introduce spending guard rails to ensure part of the massive $280 billion package doesn’t go over 10 years could be spent on “completely independent programs”. Democrats disputed Toomey’s characterization and said the money would only be spent on veterans.
“I’m supposed to trust that this and future congresses won’t go on a spending spree? In earnest? That’s incredible,” Toomey said ahead of the vote. “Why did they design this feature so they can go shopping?”
Toomey had insisted his amendment go through a 50-vote threshold by a simple majority. In the end, he and other Republicans gave in to Schumer’s demands that three GOP amendments would receive votes at a higher 60-vote threshold, essentially ensuring their defeat. All fell well below this bar.
The Senate had already voted 84-14 to pass the cremation pit bill in June, but 25 Republican yes votes reversed course as legislation got underway again last week, with many echoing Toomey’s spending concerns and arguing that the Democrats didn’t give them a chance to change the package. Democrats and veterans, however, argued that many Republicans voted against the bill in retaliation for the massive deal on climate change, health care and taxes that Democrats just hammered out.
As some veterans literally slept on the Capitol steps over the weekend, the Republican blockade became increasingly untenable.
“I think they’re frayed in terms of their ability to withstand this,” Stewart, who has also campaigned for funding for 9/11 first responders and their families, told NBC News before announcing the deal Tuesday .
“I think this is a cruel and unusual punishment that is going on and they need to stop it.”
Ali Vitali and Frank Thorp v contributed.
https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/senate-passes-veterans-health-bill-republicans-cave-pressure-rcna41215 Senate passes veterans’ health bill after Republicans give in to pressure