Veterans Protest at US Capitol as Pressure Mounts on Senate Republicans over Toxic Exposures Bill

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Rosie Torres, cofounder of Burn Pits 360, at PACT Act protest.
Rosie Torres, cofounder of Burn Pits 360, left, joins other veterans in protest over the Senate's failure to advance the PACT Act last week. The veterans have pledged to stay at the U.S. Capitol until another vote is held. (Photo courtesy of Rosie Torres)

Veterans continued their round-the-clock protest at the U.S. Capitol on Monday to press senators to vote on toxic exposure legislation before they leave Washington at the end of this week.

A core group of about 20 veterans has been camping on the steps of the Senate since Thursday, after the bill, the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, also known as the PACT Act, was blocked during a procedural vote by Senate Republicans.

The ranks of the protesters, who endured extreme heat and rain throughout the weekend, swelled to more than 100 on Sunday, according to Rosie Torres, cofounder of the advocacy group Burn Pits 360.

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"The veterans service organizations are walking the halls right now. They are working the inside, and we are out here standing with our signs," Torres said during an interview Monday. "We're not leaving until they give us a vote."

Veterans, their families and advocates were stunned last week when the bill -- which was passed by the Senate in June in an 84-14 vote but was returned to the chamber following an issue over an included tax provision -- failed to garner sufficient votes to proceed.

Sixty votes were needed to advance the measure, but it garnered only 55 yes votes. The noes included 25 Republicans who had supported the nearly identical version the month before, as well as Senate Majority Chuck Schumer, who switched his vote to ensure that the bill could be reconsidered.

Shortly after the failure, Schumer pledged to revive the legislation. A vote could come as early as Tuesday.

"I will hold a new vote this week, and I am urging everyone to vote 'yes.' This is not a Washington issue. This is a local issue. We just need Washington to help solve it," Schumer said in a press conference Sunday.

The PACT Act would expand health care and benefits to post-9/11 veterans exposed to burn pits used in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere to incinerate trash and other environmental hazards, such as volatile organic compounds, depleted uranium and petrochemicals.

The bill would designate 23 diseases as presumed to be linked to military service, paving the way for veterans to receive expedited health services and disability compensation without having to provide proof that their illness was service-related.

The bill also contains provisions for veterans who served in previous conflicts. It would expand benefits for Vietnam-era veterans who have developed hypertension as a result of Agent Orange exposure; would allow veterans and family members sickened by contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to file lawsuits; and expand coverage for veterans exposed to radiation during hazardous cleanups in the 1960s and 1970s.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who has been the most vocal critic of the legislation and a key reason it failed last week, said he objected to the bill because it expands the Department of Veterans Affairs' mandatory spending account, transferring money from discretionary funds, which are determined and set by Congress each year.

Toomey said his concerns had "nothing to do with the purpose of the bill."

"It's a budgetary gimmick that has the intent of making it possible to have a huge explosion in unrelated spending," he said following the failed vote last week.

Toomey was one of the 14 Republicans who had previously voted against the bill in June. He has proposed an amendment to the PACT Act to change the spending categorization.

"We are spending way too much money to use -- to hide behind a veterans bill, the opportunity to go on an unrelated $400 billion spending spree is wrong and we shouldn't allow it," Toomey said Sunday speaking to Jake Tapper on CNN's "State of the Union."

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of the bill to be more than $580 billion from 2022 through 2031, including more than $421 billion in mandatory spending that would cover the cost of disability benefits and health care for sickened veterans.

As the bill is written, it appears that all the funding would go to veterans disability compensation and health care, to include providing the VA the money it will need to care for an expected influx of new patients and claimants.

Speaking after Toomey on CNN Sunday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said Toomey's proposal would effectively cap spending to care for affected veterans each year and end funding after 10 years.

"Let's not sign up to that, because at the end of the day, the risk of that is going to be rationing of care to veterans," McDonough said.

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee ranking member Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., cosponsor of the bill and one of eight Republicans who voted to advance the legislation last week, suggested that Republicans may have voted against the bill in retaliation over a deal on climate change, tax and health care legislation between Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

Torres said that, over the weekend, several senators stopped by to talk with protesters, including Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. President Joe Biden spoke with the protesters over FaceTime and sent pizzas to them via McDonough, who visited the group.

No senators who voted against the motion have visited, she added.

"The 25 should come out here and look these people in the face," said Torres, who has been fighting for such legislation for the past decade. "They're cowards."

As the crowd grew Monday, advocate and comedian Jon Stewart joined the group, saying that all Americans owe the veterans who served "a debt of gratitude."

"It's about time we start paying it off," Stewart said. "Can we please not force veterans, disabled from their heroism and sacrifice, to stand outside the Capitol building, days on end, waiting on this Congress to do the thing they already did on June 16?"

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

Related: Sweeping Toxic Exposure Bill Passed by House

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