It may not have been the highest profile legislative fight of the year, but the Senate was expected to do something important for a sizable group of American veterans last night. As The Hill reported, Republicans had other ideas.
Republican lawmakers blocked passage of a bill in the U.S. Senate Wednesday that expands healthcare coverage for military veterans who were exposed to toxins and burn pits during their service. All Democrats and eight Republicans voted for the Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act, but the 55 yes votes fell short of the 60 needed to end a filibuster in the Senate. Three Senators did not vote.
In case anyone needs a refresher, let’s circle back to our earlier coverage and review how we arrived at this point.
In his State of the Union address in March, President Joe Biden highlighted an issue that doesn’t generally get a lot national attention: U.S. troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan who were exposed to toxic smoke from burn pits. “These burn pits that incinerate waste — the wastes of war, medical and hazardous material, jet fuel, and so much more,” the president explained.
As a result, servicemen and women who breathed in fumes from these burn pits often return home and experience serious symptoms. There are concerns that prolonged exposure to burn pits might even be responsible for giving some veterans cancer. Indeed, it’s no secret that the Democrat believes toxic exposure may have contributed to the brain cancer that killed his son.
With this in mind, Biden called on Congress to approve a law “to make sure veterans devastated by toxic exposure in Iraq and Afghanistan finally get the benefits and the comprehensive healthcare they deserve.” The legislation, known as the Honoring Our PACT Act (Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act), would expand treatment eligibility, and it has plenty of champions on Capitol Hill.
Indeed, for a while it seemed like a fairly easy legislative lift, despite some Republican opposition. The bill easily passed the Senate in June — only 14 GOP senators voted against it — and the House followed suit a couple of weeks ago, passing the measure 342 to 88. (All 88 opponents were Republicans.)
There was, however, a slight hiccup in the process: The House made a technical fix that required the Senate to vote on it again. In theory, that shouldn’t have been much of a problem. After all, an effectively identical bill passed with 84 votes last month.
But in practice, it needed 60 senators on a procedural vote last night, and it ended up with 55. (It had 56, but Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had to switch from “yes” to “no” for procedural reasons. He fully supports the legislation.) All 42 opponents — many of whom had already voted for the same bill in the recent past — were Republicans.
All of which leaves us with two questions.
First, why in the world did GOP lawmakers do this? As Punchbowl News noted, the party’s move “angered veterans’ groups and made little substantive sense.”
Roll Call reported, “Some conservatives have raised objections to the bill because it would reclassify nearly $400 billion in current-law VA spending from discretionary to mandatory accounts, thereby potentially freeing up more budget authority to increase discretionary spending on other domestic programs.”
The trouble is, that helps explain the opposition from the Republicans who were already against the bill. What about the GOP senators who were on board with the legislation before changing their minds last night?
The Military Times reported Republicans scuttled the PACT Act because of “a surprise deal on health care and environmental policies announced by Senate Democratic leaders.” In other words, Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin struck a deal on a domestic package, and Republicans were so outraged by Democratic efforts to govern that the Senate GOP threw a tantrum — one that would undermine veterans’ needs.
The second question, meanwhile, is what will happen now. Republican Sen. John Cornyn said overnight that he expects the bill will ultimately pass “in some form or another.” For the sake of veterans and their families, we can certainly hope so.
But for today, it looks like a whole lot of GOP lawmakers turned a cold shoulder — for no good reason — to veterans who deserved better. As the editorial board of The Kansas City Star put it, Republicans “betrayed sick veterans” with a move that “boggles the mind.”
Update: Here's a list of the 25 Senate Republicans who flipped on hte PACT Act for no apparent reason.