The Senate bill passed on Tuesday would expand health care coverage for more than 3.5 million veterans.
The Democratic-controlled Senate on Tuesday advanced a bill aimed at providing adequate medical care for veterans exposed to toxic chemicals during their service. But 12 Senate Republicans voted against even considering this bipartisan proposal.
By an 86-12 margin, the Senate voted for cloture on a motion to begin consideration of the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022 — well more than the required 60-vote supermajority.
According to Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chair Jon Tester and Ranking Member Jerry Moran, the bill will expand the Department of Veterans Affairs health care eligibility to combat veterans who served after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, including more than 3.5 million veterans who were exposed to toxic chemicals during their service. The bill will also expand research on toxic exposure and expand coverage for those exposed to Agent Orange and burn pits.
"In addition to providing historic relief to all generations of toxic-exposed veterans, this legislation will improve claims processing to meet the immediate and future needs of every veteran it serves," wrote Tester (D-MT) and Moran (R-KS) after they reached an agreement on a Senate version of the bill on May 18. "Together, we will continue working until Congress delivers on its commitment to passing long-lasting solutions and comprehensive reforms for those who served our country."
Despite the Senate's broad bipartisan support for the bill, 12 Republicans voted against advancing it: Sens. Richard Burr (NC), Bill Cassidy (LA), John Kennedy (LA), James Lankford (OK), Mike Lee (UT), Cynthia Lummis (WY), Rand Paul (KY), Mitt Romney (UT), Dan Sullivan (AK), Thom Tillis (NC), Pat Toomey (PA), and Todd Young (IN).
None of the 12 senators immediately gave a reason for why they voted against the bill either on the Senate floor or on Twitter.
The issue has been a top priority for President Joe Biden and his administration.
In his March State of the Union address, Biden noted that his own son's fatal cancer might have been caused by toxic exposure during his service in Iraq.
"When they came home, many of the world's fittest and best-trained warriors were never the same. Headaches. Numbness. Dizziness. A cancer that would put them in a flag-draped coffin," he said of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. "I know. One of those soldiers was my son, Major Beau Biden. We don't know for sure if a burn pit was the cause of his brain cancer or the diseases of so many of our troops. But I’m committed to finding out everything we can."
In April, the Biden administration announced administrative steps to allow those exposed to burn pit chemicals during their military service to get disability benefits if they contracted respiratory cancers.
The White House has also pushed Congress to enact broader legislation. In May, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the Senate bill "will not only help deliver more timely access to benefits and services for veterans and their survivors, it will also ensure that the Department of Veterans Affairs can act more nimbly to add future presumptive conditions when the evidence warrants."
A similar bill passed the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives in March, 256-174. Though 34 Republicans backed that bill — along with every single Democratic representative — the vast majority of the GOP caucus voted no and argued that that $281.5 billion package was too expensive.
The Senate is now likely to approve its version of the bill and send it back to the House.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already endorsed the Senate package as "an important victory for America’s veterans, their families and caregivers, and indeed for all of America," and promised to immediately move it through the House and to Biden's desk.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.