The Senate on Tuesday approved a bill to vastly expand health care resources and disability benefits for veterans exposed to toxic burns while serving overseas, dispelling the pain and anger that erupted less than a week ago after the initial legislation by some push back Republican senators.
Grown men cried and hugged each other in the hallways of the Capitol building, according to a Bloomberg journalist. Known as the Honoring Our PACT Act, the bill will now go to President Joe Biden’s desk for signature. The final Senate vote was 86-11, exceeding the 60-vote minimum needed to pass the chamber.
The law’s passage comes after days of intense campaigning by more than 60 veterans groups, many of whom camped out on the Capitol steps in defiance of Washington’s storms and humidity. Dozens of them filed into the Senate galleries to watch the vote on Tuesday afternoon.
“You can go home knowing what a 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 Associated Press.
Present in the room with the veterans was comedian Jon Stewart, a longtime veterans’ rights advocate, who sat in the Senate chamber galleries with a few dozen veterans Tuesday afternoon. Visibly emotional, Stewart held his head in his hands as the vote began.
Stewart was one of several to hit out at the 25 Republicans who withdrew their support for the original bill, which had passed the Senate by a bipartisan vote of 84-14 in June. But it had to be sent back to the House for some minor technical changes, and by the time it reached the Senate last week, more than a dozen yes votes had abruptly changed their minds.
Outside the Capitol last Thursday, Stewart snapped: “I’m used to being lied to. I’m used to hypocrisy, I’m used to cowardice, I’m used to all that, but I’m not used to cruelty.”
Back in DC on Monday, the comedian reiterated his stance. “This is the lowest hanging fruit of a functioning society. Like, if we can’t do that, the rest of us don’t have a 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 on its knees. Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, also expressed his dismay last week, calling the move “an eleventh-hour act of cowardice” on Twitter. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was similarly outraged. “This is complete bullshit,” he said at a news conference outside the Capitol. “… We had the votes.”
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) led the vote, rallying conservative votes on his side to seek an amendment to the bill that would provide a budget provision for the $278 billion package, apparently concerned that the funds would be provided by Democrats about “completely unrelated programs”.
“Should I trust this and future conferences not to go on a spending spree? Seriously? This is unbelievable,” Toomey said, according to NBC. “Why did they design this feature so they could go on a spending spree?”
By Tuesday afternoon, Schumer announced from the Senate floor that he and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had “reached an agreement to vote on the PACT Act this afternoon.” Toomey’s amendment failed soon after, with a final vote of 47-48. Two other Republican amendments to the bill also failed, including one led by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) on foreign aid restrictions that failed 90-7.
The PACT Act would allow millions of sick veterans who served near burn pits, used by the military to dispose of toxic waste in Afghanistan and Iraq, to receive disability payments without having to jump through hoops to prove that the illnesses them from their time abroad, the AP have reported.
Hundreds of thousands of sick 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 related to exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange.
The bill “should never have been delayed,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) wrote after the vote. “This has always been the right thing to do.”