WASHINGTON — Veterans protested on Capitol Hill this week after Senate Republicans, including Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, blocked a vote on a veterans health care bill. Both nationally and in Alaska, veterans are frustrated by the long-awaited legislation it didn’t pass.
Act Honoring our PACT aims to improve access to health care and injury compensation for veterans who have been exposed to burn pits, a harmful open-air disposal practice of military waste used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The bill could bring 3.5 million new claims to the Veterans Affairs health care system. It has broad support from veterans groups and elected officials from both parties. Sullivan and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski voted to pass the PACT Act along with 82 other senators on June 16. The measure also passed the House 342-88 on July 13.
But the PACT Act did not make it to President Joe Biden’s desk this week, as many supporters had hoped.
The Senate held a procedural vote Wednesday to limit further debate on the bill and bring it to a floor vote. (The act must go back to the Senate to correct a discrepancy between the House and Senate versions of the bill.) However, 41 GOP senators voted against limiting debate on the bill — delaying final passage of the act indefinitely.
Deb Davis, commander of the Alaska Department of the American Legion, said she wants the bill passed this week.
“I personally find it disappointing,” she said of the late vote. “If I were the person waiting for health care, I would find this beyond frustrating, and as the commander of a major veterans organization, I guarantee you there are some extremely frustrated people.”
Veterans said they have waited long enough for expanded health care related to burn pit exposure and protested the vote on Capitol Hill Thursday. Carrying signs with slogans such as “Veterans’ blood is on Republican hands,” they were joined by television personality Jon Stewart, a longtime advocate of access to health care for first responders and veterans exposed to toxic substances.
Democrats say Republicans are holding a floor vote as political punishment for him reaching an agreement with Sen. Joe Manchin, DW.Va., on a $370 billion tax and climate package. Republicans, including Sullivan, are offering a different explanation.
Sullivan, a Marine reservist, has long been a supporter of increasing benefits for veterans who have experienced toxic exposure. Days before the procedural vote, he called the bill “a commitment to the young men and women who went to Afghanistan and Iraq, to let them know that we have their backs.”
Sullivan spokesman Mike Reynard said the senator voted no so he could pursue amendments to “push for the best possible toxic exposure bill for veterans.”
“As he did the first time, Senator Sullivan voted against procedural motions on the PACT Act due to the continued refusal of Senate Democrats to consider amendments from Republican senators that would improve this bill,” Reynard said in a statement. .
Days before the vote, Sullivan said the bill was “flawed” and expressed concerns about the VA’s capacity to enforce the act.
“Any system that handles veterans that’s going to have to take in that many veterans runs the risk of collapsing the system,” Sullivan said last week. “Then you have everyone suffering.”
Reynard said Sullivan intends to support final passage of the bill again “given his consistent leadership in the Senate on the issue of toxic exposure.”
Murkowski tested positive for COVID-19 and could not vote in the Senate this week. In a statement on social media, she said she was disappointed the bill did not pass the Senate.
“I am determined that we will get this bill across the finish line and sign it into law,” Murkowski said on Twitter. “Our nation’s veterans deserve no less.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he will hold another procedural vote on the PACT Act to try to force the bill to a final vote.
Many veterans said they are disappointed that the PACT Act does not have a clear path forward after years of advocacy.
“We’ve gone back to a pattern of holding on to hoping for Monday with no real certainty that it’s actually going to happen,” Davis said. “Even if Sen. Sullivan changes his vote and Sen. Murkowski can vote, and they both vote yes, it’s not going to go with just those two people.”
Alaska Veteran Don Jones, also with the Alaska Department of the American Legion, hopes the PACT Act passes soon.
“I don’t blame anyone who voted against it,” Jones said. “Those members who voted no now have to come back and be held accountable, they have to answer ‘why did you vote no?'”
“Maybe it was a poorly written bill. I don’t know,” he said. “We can help Congress get back to ground zero and help Congress craft it or change it so it can be passed as a solid bill when it comes to getting veterans the help they need.”