The bill that would expand Department of Veterans benefits for military veterans exposed to toxins and burn pits as a result of their service has been blocked in the Senate.
Twenty-six Republican senators blocked passage of the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act Wednesday. The bill garnered 55 yes votes – from each Democratic senator and eight Republicans, but did not reach the 60 votes necessary to override a Republican-led filibuster in the Senate. The bill was expected to pass the Senate this week after overwhelmingly passing the House, 342-88.
In a floor speech, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) said the bill would generate $400 billion in unrelated spending, which he could not support.
“This budgetary gimmick is so unrelated to the actual veterans’ issue that has to do with burn pits, that it’s not even in the House version of this bill,” he said.
In a statement, Chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) called the move an “eleventh-hour act of cowardice” that will actively harm the country’s veterans and their families.
“Republicans chose today to rob generations of toxic-exposed veterans across this country of the health care and benefits they so desperately need and make no mistake, more veterans will suffer and die as a result,” he said.
Named after Robinson, who died in 2020 from toxic exposure as a result of his military service, the bill will expand health care for post-9/11 combat veterans, create a framework for the establishment of future presumptions of service connection related to toxic exposure, expand VA’s list of service presumptions, and improve resources to support VA claims processing.
The U.S. military has used burn pits for years, incinerating everything from excess equipment to human waste in them. According to a VA registry, more than 200,000 veterans have said exposure to the pits has made them ill with respiratory diseases and rare cancers. However, the VA has denied assistance to many of them.
The measure has been bouncing back and forth between both chambers of Congress. In June, the Senate passed the bill, followed by House approval in July. The bill was back in the Senate’s hands on Wednesday because the House made some minor changes in its version.
“We’ve been spending money like no one’s ever imagined,” Toomey argued. “I would stress there’s a very easy path to a very big vote in favor of this bill - let’s fix this problem.”
Supporters of the legislation, including veterans advocate and comedian Jon Stewart, are expected to hold a press conference in response to the latest setback Thursday on Capitol Hill.
Reach Julia LeDoux at Julia@connectingvets.com.