The Senate on Tuesday approved a bill to vastly expand health care resources and disability benefits for combat veterans exposed to toxic burn pits while serving overseas, dissipating the heartache and fury that erupted less than a week ago after the original legislation was stalled by a clump of backpedaling Republican senators.
Grown men were crying and hugging each other in the hallways of the Capitol building, according to a Bloomberg reporter. Known as the Honoring Our PACT Act, the bill will now go to President Joe Biden's desk for a signature. The Senate's final vote tallied at 86-11, rocketing past the 60-vote minimum needed to pass in the chamber.
The passage of the act comes after days of intense campaigning from more than 60 veterans groups, many of whom camped out on the Capitol steps in defiance of Washington's thunderstorms and humidity. Dozens of them filed into the Senate's galleries to watch the vote on Tuesday evening.
"You can go home knowing the good and great thing you have done and accomplished for the United States of America," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told them after the vote, according to the Associated Press.
Present in the chamber alongside the veterans was comedian Jon Stewart, a longtime advocate for veterans' rights, who sat in the Senate chamber galleries alongside a few dozen veterans on Tuesday evening. Visibly emotional, Stewart put his head in his hand and began to cry as the vote began.
"I'm not sure I've ever seen a situation where people who have already given so much had to fight so hard to get so little," Stewart told reporters after the vote. "And I hope we learn a lesson."
Stewart was one of many who ripped into the 25 Republicans who reneged on their support for the original bill, which had passed in the Senate by a bipartisan 84-14 back in June. But it had to be sent back to the House for some minor technical alterations, and by the time it arrived back at the Senate last week, more than two dozen "yes" votes had abruptly changed their minds.
Outside the Capitol last Thursday, Stewart erupted: "I'm used to the lies. I'm used to the hypocrisy, I'm used to the cowardice, I'm used to all of it, but I am not used to the cruelty."
Returning to D.C. on Monday, the comedian reiterated his stance. "This is the lowest hanging fruit of a functioning society. Like, if we can't do this, the rest of us have no shot," he told reporters. "This is the canary in the coal mine."
He wasn't the only one who didn't mince words after the bill was seemingly kneecapped. Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), the chairman of the Veteran Affairs Committee, also voiced his frustration last week, taking to Twitter to call the move "an eleventh-hour act of cowardice." Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was similarly incensed. "This is total bullshit," she said at a press conference outside the Capitol. "... We had the votes."
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) led the turncoat charge, rallying conservative votes to his side to seek an amendment to the bill that would provide a budgeting provision on the $280 billion package, apparently worried that the funds would be doled out by Democrats on "completely unrelated programs."
"I'm supposed to trust this and future congresses not to go on a spending spree? Seriously? That's unbelievable," Toomey said, according to NBC. "Why did they design this feature so that they could go on a spending spree?"
Democrats were swift to decry the blockage, saying it made little sense to protest sound legislation. "This is a bill that will work for this country, that will work for the taxpayers of this country and it will work, most importantly, for the veterans and their families," Tester said.
By Tuesday afternoon, Schumer announced from the Senate floor that he and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had "come to an agreement to vote on the PACT Act this evening." McConnell vaguely hand-waved away the Republican reversal in a weekly news conference, telling reporters that "these things happen all the time with the legislative process."
Toomey's amendment failed several hours after Schumer's announcement, with a final vote of 47-48. Two other Republican amendments on the bill also failed, including one led by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) concerning limitations on foreign aid that failed 90-7.
The PACT Act is expected to expand medical care access to roughly 3.5 million people, including millions of sick veterans who served near burn pits, used by the military for toxic waste disposal in Afghanistan and Iraq. For the first time, they'll be able to obtain disability payments without having to jump through hoops to prove their illnesses stem from their time overseas, according to the AP. Veterans Affairs currently rejects roughly seven in 10 claims related to chemical exposure and cancer, studies have shown.
Hundreds of thousands of ailing veterans who served in Vietnam, as well as tens of thousands who served in places like Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos will also be able to claim increased disability benefits associated with exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange.
President Biden is expected to sign the bill quickly, having championed it in recent months. During a March visit to Texas, the president brought up soberly that his son, Beau Biden, was killed by a brain cancer that developed after his service in Baghdad.
"We're following the science in every case, but we're also not going to force veterans to suffer in limbo for decades," Biden said in Texas, according to The Washington Post.
The bill "should have never been held up," Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) tweeted after the vote. "This was always the right thing to do."
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