The legislation extends health benefits to about 3.5 million veterans, many of whom say they came down with cancer, respiratory diseases and other ailments after being exposed to dangerous chemicals during their military service. Another provision in the bill extends federal health care coverage to 23 diseases.
“This bill is the legislation we envisioned when we set out to right the wrongs of our veterans exposed to poisons. The PACT Act recognizes that responsibility and recognizes the cost of war,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.).
Democrats and veteran advocates, such as comedian Jon Stewart, attacked Republicans for blocking passage of the legislation late last week. The roadblock came weeks after a nearly identical version of the bill passed the Senate — and hours after Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin (DW.Va.) announced a deal on a bipartisan climate, tax and health care bill. angering GOP senators who thought the package would be tighter.
So when Republicans blocked the Unaffiliated Veterans bill shortly after the deal was announced, Democrats quickly accused them of retaliation since they had helped pass the toxics legislation in an 84-14 vote in June.
GOP senators denied that was the reason, pointing to criticism from Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who argued that a “budget trick” in the bill could allow certain funds to be used for programs unrelated to veterans health care. The same language was in the bill when it passed the House in June.
By the time senators returned to D.C. on Monday, after days of backlash, GOP leadership was promising the legislation would pass quickly. But Republicans tried to downplay the delay Tuesday, even as they passed the same legislation they had blocked last week.
“Look, these kinds of back-and-forths happen all the time in the legislative process, you’ve seen it over the years,” said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “I think, in the end, the veterans service organizations will be happy with the end result.”
The Senate still engaged in an intense blame game over the delay. Bargaining for amendment votes dragged on Tuesday as senators ran through an intense list of tasks they are trying to complete before heading out for an extended August recess.
Toomey had insisted his amendment only required a simple majority to pass rather than a 60-vote threshold. The Republican was still asserting that position just hours before Schumer announced the two sides had reached a deal and defended his push even though he eventually backed down on Tuesday.
“We are witnessing a very old Washington fraud unfolding on an unprecedented scale,” Toomey said. “You take this benevolent group, you create legislation to address their problems, and then you put it into something unrelated that can never pass on its own.”
In the end, Toomey’s amendment failed, along with two others proposed by GOP Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.). Paul’s would have helped foot the bill by reducing aid to other countries, and Blackburn’s would have expanded coverage designated under community care programs.
GOP senators who voted against the final bill included Mike Crapo (Idaho), James Lankford (Okla.), Mike Lee (Utah), Cynthia Lummis (Wyo.), Rand Paul (Ky.), Jim Risch (Idaho), Mitt Romney (Utah), Thom Tillis (NC), Pat Toomey (Pa.), Tommy Tuberville (Ala.) and Richard Shelby (Ala.).
Biden has defended the legislation and has previously indicated he believes his late son, Beau, may have contracted brain cancer from incinerators used during the Iraq War.
Veterans and advocates, like Stewart, lined the upper steps of the chamber watching in silence Tuesday night as votes on the bill dragged on for more than two hours. Schumer at one point looked up at Stewart, who was in the third row of the gallery, and quipped “we’re waiting for two people.” After the vote officially passed, Stewart smiled and shook hands with those around him in the room as a single person cheered.
Many of those advocates and veterans had camped outside the Capitol in recent days to demand that Republicans pass the measure immediately. Biden, who has been self-isolating due to a positive Covid diagnosis, connected with veterans over the weekend via FaceTime and sent them pizza.