Fate of Historic Toxic Exposure Bill Unclear After Shocking Senate Defeat

Comedian and veterans advocate Jon Stewart speaks at a press conference.
Comedian and veterans advocate Jon Stewart speaks at a press conference on Capitol Hill, July 28, 2022, after a toxic exposure bill suffered an unexpected defeat in a Senate procedural vote. (Military.com photo by Rebecca Kheel)

Supporters of a plan to expand benefits for millions of veterans exposed to toxic substances and fumes are furious after a surprising defeat in a Senate procedural vote left the bill in limbo.

Veterans advocates and lawmakers who support the bill are vowing to keep fighting for its passage, framing Wednesday night's shocking development as a delay rather than a defeat. Still, it's a delay they say could cost cancer-stricken veterans their lives as they wait for care and should be blamed on a group of Republican senators they described as "liars," "hypocrites" and "cowards."

"How are these people human? Where's any sense of decency?" comedian and veterans advocate Jon Stewart said. "And sadly, [the veterans] are the people that fought and defended their right to this f---ery."

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"We just got screwed by 41 senators," said Tom Porter, executive vice president of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

"The next time I come back here, it better be to sign the damn bill at the White House because I'm sick and tired of this bulls---," said Susan Dyer, the mother-in-law of the bill's namesake. Earlier in Dyer's remarks, her 9-year-old granddaughter, Brielle, teared up as she described Heath Robinson's battle with cancer.

The comments came at a news conference Thursday morning that was originally planned as a victory lap ahead of the expected passage of the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act, which would expand health care and disability benefits for an estimated 3.5 million veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances during their military service.

    Instead, the feeling of betrayal was palpable among the assembled veterans advocates and Democratic lawmakers after a majority of Senate Republicans blocked the bill from advancing in a procedural vote, despite having supported it just a month ago.

    "I have never seen anything that's happened like happened yesterday," Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., said at the news conference. "This delay might not sound like a big thing, but number one, we don't have the bill passed, and number two, there are going to be veterans die between now and when this bill passes. And this is a piece of legislation, by the way, that everybody thought on June 16 was a done deal."

    On Wednesday, the Senate voted 55-42 to advance the bill, short of the 60 votes needed for the procedural motion to pass. One of the "no" votes was Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who needed to switch his vote from "yes" in order to be able to bring the bill up for a vote again in the future. The rest of the "no" votes were Republicans, including 25 who supported a nearly identical version of the bill in June.

    At the heart of the bill is an expansion of benefits for post-9/11 veterans who breathed in toxic fumes from massive trash fires known as burn pits, where U.S. forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region incinerated everything from plastic bottles to computers to Humvees.

    To do that, the bill would designate 23 diseases as presumed to be linked to military service. That means veterans with those ailments will no longer have to prove to the Department of Veterans Affairs that their illness was caused by their time in uniform in order to get health care and disability benefits.

    While much of the bill is focused on the post-9/11 generation of veterans, there are also several provisions meant to help prior generations exposed to other toxins, including broadening coverage for veterans exposed to radiation during nuclear waste cleanup in the 1960s and for Vietnam-era veterans exposed to Agent Orange.

    The Senate previously approved the bill in an 84-14 vote in June, appearing to put it on a glide path to becoming law. But shortly after the Senate vote, House lawmakers discovered language that ran afoul of the Constitution's requirement that tax-related issues originate in the lower chamber. The problematic section would have provided a tax incentive to entice health care workers to move to rural VA facilities.

    So, the House passed a version of the bill without the tax language in a 342-88 vote earlier this month, kicking it back to the Senate for a second vote.

    The Senate's second vote had been expected to go smoothly, despite objections from Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., about one of the bill's funding mechanisms. But Toomey apparently lobbied enough of his Republican colleagues to his side to tank the procedural vote.

    "My concern about this bill has nothing to do with the purpose of the bill," Toomey said on the Senate floor after the failed procedural vote. "There is a mechanism created in this bill. It's a budgetary gimmick that has the intent of making it possible to have a huge explosion in unrelated spending."

    Senate Veterans Affairs Committee ranking member Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., co-author of the bill and one of eight Republicans who voted in favor of advancing it Wednesday, also suggested some of his colleagues were mad about an unrelated deal announced around the time of the vote between Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on a climate change, tax and health care bill.

    "There may have been emotion," Moran told reporters.

    The path forward on the bill now is unclear. The Senate is scheduled to leave town at the end of next week until after Labor Day, meaning the earliest the bill could come back to the floor is likely September. Veterans advocates and some Democrats are now calling on the Senate to postpone its recess until the bill is passed.

    "We're going to be pushing to get it done before September, but we'll see, and the decision hasn't been made yet," Tester told reporters.

    Asked whether he could make a deal with Toomey, Tester railed against the senator.

    "Toomey wants to take away the ability of appropriators to do their job," Tester said. "Every appropriator should be mad as hell about that. Unfortunately, many of the appropriators voted with Toomey. But I'm not going to allow that to happen."

    Moran said he is open to "whatever solution is necessary to get it done." While he said he thinks Toomey's position has merit, his preference would be to pass the bill and then pass separate legislation later to address Toomey's concern.

    "I will tell veterans that I have no doubt that we'll get there and that I am working with Republicans and Democrats to make certain that it happens sooner rather than later," Moran said.

    In the meantime, veterans advocates are warning they will not let up their fight, with Rosie Torres, executive director and co-founder of Burn Pits 360, vowing to "organize at every one of your district offices."

    "What about we pay attention to those that are sick and dying? What about we pay attention to those that are putting a gun to their head because Congress and these senators have screwed them so badly," Torres said at the news conference. "It's bulls---."

    -- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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