Vets groups go wild after GOP blocks toxin bill: ‘I’m sick of these bulls—’

Veterans’ advocacy groups went wild on Thursday after Senate Republicans blocked a long-awaited bill to expand care for veterans who were exposed to toxins during military service.

Sergeant. First-class Heath Robinson honoring our PACT law was the product of a year of negotiations between the House and Senate, and Wednesday’s vote was widely expected to be a victory for veterans in need of care.

But the majority of GOP senators voted against moving the bill forward, infuriating its Democratic sponsors and veteran lobbyists on its behalf, who focused their anger on Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.)

“This is total bullshit,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (DN.Y.) said at a press conference outside the Capitol on Thursday.

“We had strong bipartisan support for this bill. And at the eleventh hour, Senator Toomey decides he wants to rewrite the bill, change the rules, and defeat it.

Tom Porter, executive vice president of government affairs for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, pointed out that some Republicans who voted against the bill are veterans.

“How can other veterans turn their backs and stab us in the back like that,” Porter said.

The Senate voted 55 to 42 to advance the PACT Act, short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a buccaneer. The upper house passed the bill last month by a majority bipartisan 84-14 vote, and the House passed the bill earlier this month by a vote of 342-88.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (DN.Y.), who originally voted “yes,” changed his vote to “no” and moved a motion for reconsideration.

The vote failed on the heels of Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin (DW.Va.) unveiling a budget reconciliation bill that addresses climate, health care and taxes. However, Gillibrand said she doesn’t believe Wednesday’s vote was in retaliation for the package.

In floor speeches Tuesday and Wednesday, Toomey said he opposes the bill because it shifts $400 billion from discretionary spending to mandatory spending, which he called a “fiscal trick.”

The Pennsylvania Republican has proposed changing the bill by moving that funding to discretionary spending, which is subject to annual appropriations from Congress.

After Wednesday’s vote, Toomey said the failure of the closing vote allowed the upper house to amend the bill, adding that it was a “pretty simple solution”.

“Once that’s done, that bill sails through this chamber and goes to the president and is signed into law,” he said.

In a speech on the floor Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Toomey’s amendment should have been votable.

“Even on such important and costly legislation, the Democratic leader tried to block the Senate from any semblance of a fair amendment process,” McConnell said, referring to Toomey’s amendment.

“As written, the legislation will not only help American veterans as designed, it will also allow Democrats to effectively spend the same money twice and allow hundreds of billions in unrelated new spending from the discretionary side of the federal budget,” he said.

But veterans’ advocates didn’t buy Toomey’s arguments Thursday, as they lashed out at him and the GOP for blocking needed care for veterans.

“Every day that this delay continues, veterans cannot receive care,” said Lawrence Montreuil, legislative director of the American Legion. “This is wrong. We will not sit idly by and allow veterans to be denied the health care they are due.”

The PACT Act would have extended Department of Veterans Affairs benefits to veterans who served after 9/11 and who were exposed to toxic burning stoves during their military service.

It would also have added 23 combustion-related illnesses to the VA’s list of alleged service ties, meaning veterans would not have to prove their illness was caused by military exposure. And it would have extended care to veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa and Johnston Atoll.

The legislation was named after Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, who died in 2020 from toxic exposures while serving in Kosovo and Iraq.

Robinson’s mother-in-law, Susan Zeier, became emotional Thursday as she responded to Wednesday’s vote.

“They voted for us all to suffer. They approve of our suffering,” Zeier said. “Next time I come back here, I better sign this fucking bill in the White House, because I’m sick of this bullshit.”

Despite their anger, lawmakers vowed to continue pushing to pass the bill. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said he’s been pushing for lawmakers to stay in Washington until the bill passes, though it’s unclear if his efforts will succeed given that the Senate is expected to leave town next week.

Gillibrand promised to continue to introduce the bill through a unanimous consent request until it passes. But she also encouraged lawyers to pressure the 25 Republicans who changed their votes to reconsider.

“We have to go to these 25 offices,” she said. “We need to make sure each of these senators understands that they just sentenced veterans to death because they won’t get the health care they’ve earned.”

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