US Senate’s stalled bill on veterans’ exposure to burn pits could be revived this week

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate could be on track to advance a bill as early 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 legislation.

A Republican Senate aide who discussed ongoing substantive talks said Monday morning that supporters expect at least 60 senators to vote to override the chamber’s legislative filibuster in a vote on Tuesday. . This would likely prepare the bill to pass by a simple majority later this week.

It remains unclear if there will be a separate vote on an amendment to the bill pushed by Republican Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey.

Negotiations on Toomey’s amendment were underway on Monday, according to the Senate GOP aide.

The measure, which the Senate vote 84-14 to pass in June, stalled last week after a group of 25 Republicans reversed their votes to block the measure on Toomey’s concerns about how certain expenses would be categorized.

veterans organizations decried these lawmakers for blocking the bill and called on them to support the legislation during a press conference last Thursday. Some Democrats have also accused Republicans of changing their votes in anger after Senate Democrats unexpectedly unveiled a reconciliation bill that includes prescription drug reform, corporate tax cuts and tax cuts. climate change initiatives.

Veterans organize a vigil next to the Capitol to draw attention to the impasse and encourage lawmakers to back the legislation. Veterans’ lawyer and comedian Jon Stewart harshly criticized Republicans who reversed their votes.

End an obstruction

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Thursday he plans to hold a second procedural vote on the measure Monday night to give Republicans another chance to back the bill and end the vote. systematic obstruction.

Schumer also said he would hold a vote on Toomey’s proposed changes to the bill, with a 60-vote threshold for passage.

“We will give Senator Toomey the right to present his amendment and try to get the votes for it,” Schumer said Thursday.

One question would be whether Toomey wants to set the threshold for passing the amendment at a simple majority vote and not the 60 votes that Schumer proposed for consideration.

If the Senate were to change the legislation in any way, such as passing the Toomey Amendment, it would have to return to the US House, which is currently in recess in August, for final approval. President Joe Biden has been very supportive of the bill and is expected to sign it.

3.5 million veterans helped

If passed by Congress, the measuresponsored by Democratic Senator from Montana Jon Tester and Republican Senator from Kansas Jerry Moran, would provide approximately 3.5 million veterans with health care and benefits from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs to treat illnesses likely caused by the exposure to toxic substances while deployed.

The package would help veterans exposed to burning homes get medical care and other benefits without having to jump through hoops trying to prove their illnesses are linked to their deployments.

Fire pits were used often during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Biden has repeatedly called on Congress to address the short- and long-term health effects for veterans.

“Our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have faced many dangers,” Biden said during his State of the Union address in March. “One of them was stationed at bases breathing in toxic smoke from ‘burning pits’ that incinerated war waste – medical and hazardous equipment, jet fuel, etc.”

“When they returned home, many of the fittest, best-trained warriors in the world weren’t the same,” Biden added. “Headaches. Numbness. Dizziness. Cancer that would put them in a flag draped coffin.

Biden has often cited burning fireplaces 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 burning fireplace was the cause of his brain cancer’, he was ‘determined to find out everything’ possible about the impact they had. had on the soldiers since their deployment.

Legislation the Senate is expected to vote on again on 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 broaden the presumptions for veterans exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical used by the US military 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 believed to have been exposed to the chemical.

june vote

The Senate originally voted to pass the measure on a majority bipartisan 84-14 basis in June, but had to vote on the measure again after the US House. made a technical change.

The section Toomey opposes was in the legislation the first time the US Senate voted to approve the package.

Toomey, who voted against the bill the first time around, said in a statement at the time that “the Department of Veterans Affairs already has the authority to ensure that veterans receive this care when the evidence has established a link with their service”.

“Instead, the PACT Act goes well beyond that, substituting the political judgment of Congress for available evidence and including unnecessary changes to long-standing budget rules to allow hundreds of billions in additional spending for non-profit purposes. unrelated,” he continued.

The unsuccessful procedural vote on the bill last week was 55 to 42, but Schumer changed his vote from yes to no so he could easily reinstate the measure.

Democratic Senator Pat Leahy of Vermont and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia were absent last week, as was centrist Republican Senator from Alaska Lisa Murkowski, all three of whom backed the bill in the first vote. Leahy was recovering from a broken hip, and Manchin and Murkowski had tested positive for COVID-19.

If those three lawmakers return this week and continue to support the bill, supporters of the legislation will have to entice a single Republican to return to support the legislation for it to get the 60 votes needed to override a filibuster.

Norman D. Briggs