Veterans advocates scheduled a victory-lap press conference outside the Capitol for Thursday morning in anticipation of passing new toxic exposure benefits legislation.
But after 41 Senate Republicans blocked the measure on Wednesday night, the event turned into a obscenity-laced rage fest instead.
“America’s heroes who fought our wars are outside sweating their asses off, battling all kinds of ailments, while these motherfuckers sit in the air conditioning walled off from any of it,” comedian and activist Jon Stewart told the grumbling crowd. “They don’t have to hear it. They don’t have to see it. They don’t have to understand that these are human beings suffering.
“They haven’t met a war they won’t sign up for and haven’t met a veteran they won’t screw over.”
Now, after supporters believed they were just a few procedural votes away from a monumental congressional victory, they’re left wondering whether their anger can restart legislative momentum on the stalled veterans bill and salvage something from years of lobbying efforts.
The measure — the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, or PACT Act — could affect benefits for as many as one in five veterans living in the U.S. today. It has been touted for months as potentially the most significant veterans policy changes in years.
It dramatically expands benefits for illnesses believed to be linked to burn pit smoke in Iraq and Afghanistan, Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam and proximity to other harmful military contaminants in varied service eras. It also would force changes in how the Department of Veterans Affairs evaluates and awards benefits for those kinds of illnesses in the future.
The PACT Act was expected to pass out of Congress in late June, but a technical correction mandated another set of votes in the House and Senate for final approval. It advanced on a 342–88 vote in the House two weeks ago with significant Republican support and already had been supported in the Senate with a 84–14 vote in June.
But 27 Republicans changed their support during a procedural vote Wednesday evening, sidelining the bill for now and frustrating supporters who thought their work was all but done.
“It came out of nowhere,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York and a longtime supporter of the benefits expansion. “And it was total bullshit.”
Senate leaders can bring the measure up for another procedural vote in the next few days, but they’ll only do so if they’re confident they have satisfied Republican objections.
And they admit they still aren’t sure exactly what those objections are.
In June, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, led the Senate opposition to the measure over how the $300 billion in spending over the next decade would be classified. The bill categorizes the new money and some already established payouts as mandatory spending. Toomey wants the existing spending to remain unchanged, saying reclassifying it may allow appropriators to add more spending to non-defense accounts in the future.
However, only 13 other Republicans backed Toomey’s concerns during the vote on the measure. Several declined to answer questions on why they switched their votes now.
Democratic leaders say they think other political issues played a larger role in the rest of the GOP caucus’ change of heart.
“There are really only two explanations,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, said on the Senate floor Thursday. “The first is that 30 Republicans just changed their mind. Three weeks ago they thought it was a good bill, and three weeks later they decided that it wasn’t a good idea.”
“The less charitable explanation is this: Republicans are mad that Democrats are on the verge of passing climate change legislation and have decided to take out their anger on vulnerable veterans.”
During Wednesday’s veterans vote, Senate Democratic leaders announced they had reached a long-sought budget reconciliation deal that includes new climate change provisions, health care protections and tax increases for upper income Americans.
The potential proposal has been decried by Republicans for months, some of whom vowed to block a host of unrelated legislation if the deal advanced.
Eight Republicans — including Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Jerry Moran, R-Kansas — voted for moving ahead with the PACT Act. Senate Democrats need at least 10 to advance the legislation, and more if members of their caucus are absent with injuries or illnesses.
On Thursday, Moran said he is working to find a solution.
“I have no doubt that we’ll get there,” he said. “I am working with Republicans and Democrats to make certain that it happens sooner rather than later.”
But he also acknowledged that he was surprised by the new opposition to the bill, and uncertain about all of the reasons behind it.
If the problem with the PACT Act relates to Toomey’s objections, lawmakers could amend the bill and send it back to the House for another vote. However, with the House and Senate poised to leave town for August break in the next week, final passage would likely not happen until September, if longer.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., on Thursday afternoon said the chamber would attempt another PACT Act vote on Aug. 1. That will include a debate on a potential amendment to address Toomey’s accounting concerns.
But if the objections are tied more to chamber politics than the provisions of the PACT Act, however, the path to moving the measure forward is murkier.
Veterans groups at Thursday’s rally said they shifted from planned congratulatory phone calls to senators for supporting the PACT Act to restarted lobbying efforts instead. Several advocates went directly from the rally to senators’ offices, pleading with them to find a quick solution to the latest obstacle.
“We’re here now with friends of ours that need help breathing because of their illnesses from deployments,” Tom Porter, executive vice president for government Affairs at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said at Thursday’s rally. “But there are also people that aren’t here with this anymore.
“Not everybody understands all these intricacies about party politics and cloture votes. We just want to know why veterans are getting screwed.”
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.