Senate approves veterans health bill after Republicans came under pressure

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Tuesday passed legislation that extends life-saving health benefits for war veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan exposed to toxic fire pits.

The 86-11 vote came after Republicans agreed to lift their blockade of the popular bill, amid pressure from more than 60 veteran groups — and comedian Jon Stewart — who had been ranting at Republicans for days outside the Capitol.

Many of the veterans who had camped on the steps of the Senate braved heat, humidity and thunderstorms, watching the mood from the bleachers in the Senate Chamber. The bill has already passed the House and is now going to President Joe Biden’s office for his signature.

Comedian and activist Jon Stewart embraces Susan Zeier, the mother-in-law of the late Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson, before the Senate vote on the PACT Act outside the Capitol on August 2, 2022.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

It’s “very emotional. [These are] tears of joy and relief,” said Jen Burch, 35, a retired Air Force personnel sergeant who suffers from numerous ailments she believes were caused by exposure to fire pits and open sewer ponds in Afghanistan.

“This is our night to celebrate, but we have more work to do to continue to advocate and ensure that the [Department of Veterans Affairs] is doing their job in implementing this legislation for our veterans.”

Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said his agency will act quickly after Biden signs the measure.

“Once the president signs this bill, we at VA will implement it quickly and effectively and deliver the care these veterans need and the benefits they deserve,” McDonough said in a statement.

Biden praised the bill’s approval on Tuesday night, calling it a “lifeline” for families who had lost a loved one due to toxic exposure.

“Congress has won a decisive and two-pronged victory for America’s veterans,” Biden said in a statement. “For the millions of veterans who may have been exposed to harmful toxins, this bill means faster access to health care and other benefits. This could be the difference between life and death for many who suffer from toxic-related illnesses.”

Majority leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., spoke on the Senate floor and said that with the passage of the PACT Act, “veterans across America can breathe a sigh of relief.”

He then joined Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., to thank the vets outside the Capitol for their advocacy. “The treatment they deserved and needed but were denied because of the VA, because of all kinds of legal barriers and suspicions, will now be gone.

“Veterans exposed to the toxic 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 among the Republicans who upheld the bill when he demanded a vote on his amendment to put up spending guardrails to ensure that part of the massive $280 billion package over 10 years could not be realised. spent on ‘completely unrelated programs’. Democrats disputed Toomey’s characterization, saying the money would be spent only on veterans.

“I’m supposed to trust that this and future congresses won’t spend money? Seriously? That’s incredible,” Toomey said before the vote. “Why did they design this feature so they can spend money?”

Toomey had insisted that his amendment be brought forward with a threshold of 50 simple majority votes. In the end, he and other Republicans heeded Schumer’s demands that three GOP amendments get votes with a higher threshold of 60 votes, essentially ensuring their defeat. Everything was well below that bar.

The Senate had already voted 84-14 in June to pass the bill on the trouble spots, but 25 Republican yes votes backfired when the legislation came up again last week, with many reflecting and alleging Toomey’s spending concerns. that the Democrats didn’t give them a chance to change the package. However, Democrats and veterans argued that many Republicans voted against the bill in retaliation for the massive deal on climate change, health care and taxes that the Democrats had just struck.

With some veterans literally sleeping on the steps of the Capitol this weekend, the Republican blockade became increasingly untenable.

“I think they’re fraying in terms of their ability to withstand this,” Stewart, who has also fought for funding for 9/11 first responders and their families, told NBC News before Tuesday’s deal was announced.

“I think this is a cruel and unusual punishment that is going on and they should end it.”

Ali Vitalic, Frank Thorp V and Zoe Richards contributed.

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