A surprise deal on health care and environmental policies announced by Senate Democratic leaders Wednesday afternoon produced an unexpected casualty: the comprehensive toxic exposure legislation veterans advocates expected to pass this week.
The Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act — better known as the PACT Act — had been up for a procedural vote in the chamber with an expectation of final passage before the end of the week.
The measure is the culmination of years of work by advocates to improve health care and benefits for veterans suffering injuries from burn pit smoke, Agent Orange spraying and other military contaminant exposure. It has been widely celebrated as a potential landmark legislative victory in veterans policy.
The measure passed the Senate by a comfortable 84-14 vote in early June, and by a 342-88 vote in the House two weeks ago with significant Republican support.
But on Wednesday, after technical corrections sent the measure back to the Senate for another procedural vote, 41 Senate Republicans blocked the measure, leaving its future uncertain.
Republican lawmakers who had previously voted against the measure, including Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., reiterated objections to how the money connected to the measure (about $300 billion over 10 years) would be accounted for in the regular appropriations process.
But the block came just as Democratic leaders announced plans for a comprehensive budget reconciliation measure — a plan that the GOP caucus previously pledged to oppose, including increased efforts to snarl normal business in the chamber.
Democratic leaders immediately attacked their colleagues putting political vendettas ahead of needed veterans benefits.
“This eleventh-hour act of cowardice will actively harm this country’s veterans and their families,” said Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont. “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.”
Eight Senate Republicans — including Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Jerry Moran, R-Kansas — voted for moving ahead with the bill.
Republican leaders gave no public comment on the reasons behind the surprise move, or on what changes would be needed to move the legislation ahead. The Senate is scheduled to go on a month-long recess on Aug. 5, and advocates had hoped to have the PACT Act on the president’s desk before then.
That timeline appears out of reach now.
If it becomes law, about one in five living American veterans could benefit from the PACT Act.
For veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the bill would establish a presumption of service connection for 23 respiratory illnesses and cancers related to the smoke from burn pits, used extensively in those war zones to dispose of various types of waste, many of them toxic.
The bill also provides for new benefits for veterans who faced radiation exposure during deployments throughout the Cold War; adds hypertension and monoclonal gammopathy to the list of illnesses linked to Agent Orange exposure in the Vietnam War; expands the timeline for Gulf War medical claims; and requires new medical exams for all veterans with toxic exposure claims.
Veterans who served in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Guam during the Vietnam War-era would be covered for the first time under the same Agent Orange presumptive policies as those who served in Vietnam itself.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., announced the outline of the budget reconciliation deal with details to come next week.
According to the Associated Press, officials said the plan would spend about $369 billion on energy and climate initiatives and $64 billion to extend expiring federal subsidies for people buying health insurance.
It would also raise $739 billion in revenue over 10 years, the biggest chunk coming from a 15% corporate minimum tax.
Democratic lawmakers and veterans advocates are scheduled to rally for PACT Act passage Thursday morning. Chamber leaders said they would keep working on finding a path forward for the legislation in coming days.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.