October 5, 2022

WASHINGTON — The Senate passed legislation Tuesday that extends life-saving health care benefits for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans exposed to toxic burns.

The 86-11 vote came after Republicans agreed to lift a block on the popular bill, bowing to pressure from more than 60 veterans groups — and comedian Jon Stewart — who had railed against Republicans for days outside Capitol Hill.

Many of the veterans camped out on the Senate steps, braving the heat, humidity and storms, watched the vote from the gallery in the Senate chamber. The bill has already passed the House and is now headed to President Joe Biden’s desk for his signature.

Image: Comedian and activist Jon Stewart embraces Susan Zeier, mother-in-law of the late Sgt.  First Class Heath Robinson, before the Senate vote on the PACT Act outside the Capitol on August 2, 2022.
Comedian and activist Jon Stewart embraces Susan Zeier, mother-in-law of the late Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson, before the Senate vote on the PACT Act outside the Capitol on August 2, 2022.Drew Angerer/Getty Images

“This critical legislation will begin helping our veterans and their families who are currently fighting their own health battles due to toxic exposure from their military service on Day One of the law’s signing,” said Jen Burch , 35, retired Air Force staff. sergeant suffering from multiple ailments he believes were caused by exposure to burns and open sewage ponds in Afghanistan.

With the passage of the PACT Act, “veterans across America can breathe a sigh of relief,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the floor before walking out of the Capitol with Veterans Affairs President , Jon Tester, D-Mont. ., to thank the vets for their support. “The treatment that they deserved and needed, but were denied because of the VA, because of all kinds of legal barriers and presumptions, will be gone.

“Veterans who were exposed to toxic burn fumes will be treated by the VA as they should have been from the beginning,” Schumer added.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., was one of the Republicans sponsoring the bill as he called for a vote on his amendment to put spending guardrails in place to ensure that part of the massive $280 billion package over 10 years would not could be spent on ‘completely unrelated programmes’. Democrats disputed Toomey’s designation, saying the money would only be spent on veterans.

“I’m supposed to trust this and future congresses not to go on a spending spree? Seriously? This is unbelievable,” Toomey said before the vote. “Why did they design this feature so they could go on a spending spree?”

Toomey had insisted that his amendment would be brought to the floor with 50 votes, a simple majority. In the end, he and other Republicans caved to Schumer’s demands that three GOP amendments receive a higher 60-vote threshold, effectively ensuring their defeat. Everything fell well below that bar.

The Senate had already voted 84-14 to pass the burn bill in June, but 25 votes in favor of Republicans reversed course when the legislation came back last week, with many echoing Toomey’s concerns about spending and to argue that the Democrats did not give them a chance to modify the package. Democrats and veterans argued, however, that many Republicans were voting against the bill in retaliation for the massive deal on climate change, health care and taxes that Democrats had just crafted.

With some veterans literally sleeping on the Capitol steps over the weekend, the Republican impeachment became increasingly untenable.

“I think they’re chipping away at their ability to withstand this,” Stewart, who has also campaigned for funding for 9/11 first responders and their families, told NBC News before Tuesday’s deal was announced.

“I think this is cruel and unusual punishment that is happening and it needs to end.”

Ali Vitali and Frank Thorp V contributed.

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