WASHINGTON — After years of activism and brief wrangling over budget tech issues, the Senate has passed the PACT Act, which would make health care more accessible to veterans exposed to toxic burn pits,
The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 86-11 on Tuesday and sent it to President Joe Biden, who is expected to sign it into law. Republicans voted all 11 against the bill.
“This Senate will pass the most significant expansion of VA health care benefits in generations,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in remarks before the vote. “It was a very good day, a long awaited day, a day long overdue.”
What is a burn pit and what does the bill do?
Incineration pits — open dumps where military waste is disposed of by incineration — expose an estimated 3.5 million veterans to toxic chemicals that can cause respiratory illness or various forms of cancer, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
Due to the lack of concrete evidence directly linking burn pits to disease, veterans who become ill from exposure to burn pits are often denied disability benefits and health care.
more:Senate passes PACT bill, latest effort to help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits in years
The bill, called the PACT Act, would address the issue by codifying the relationship between specific diseases and burn pit cancer, easing the burden of proof for veterans to receive benefits.
With this direct link in place, the bill will provide easier access to health care and disability benefits for the estimated 3.5 million exposed veterans who have previously had to wrestle with the Department of Veterans Affairs over their illnesses.
What are people saying?
- “Toxic exposure is the price of war, and we have to treat it that way,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a speech in the House of Representatives. “It’s not about the dollar, it’s about the values.”
- House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California released a statement mocking the cost of the bill, calling it a “budget stunt” and another form of “reckless spending.” McCarthy was one of 88 members of the House of Representatives who opposed the bill.
- Sen. Sherrod Brown D-Ohio. told USA TODAY, “This is a huge win for veterans. It’s one of the most important things we do for veterinarians.”
- On Tuesday afternoon, Senator Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, a senior member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, implored his colleagues to “provide the most comprehensive toxic exposure package to veterans in the history of our nation.
- Comedian and former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart has been one of the bill’s most vocal supporters. Speaking on the steps of the Capitol on Monday, Stewart said: “We all owe (veterans) a debt of gratitude. Now is the time for us to start paying our debts.”
A question close to the heart of Biden
Biden has a personal interest in the bill because glioblastoma — the cancer that killed his son Major Beau Biden — is one of the codified cancers.In his State of the Union address, he mentioned This possible The link between the burn pit and his son’s death.
“I’m not sure he lives in a burn pit nearby – his den was near Iraq, and before that, in Kosovo was the cause of his brain cancer and many other ailments in the troops.”
The bill has been long awaited by veterans and activists who have been pushing for any similar federal action for burn pit victims. While research is still being done to establish a direct link between burn pits and the disease, both activists and Biden say action is needed now, not wait.
In March, Biden visited a Veterans Affairs clinic in Fort Worth, Texas, where he emphasized the importance of some form of burn pit legislation.
“when The evidence doesn’t somehow give a definitive answer, and the decision we should support is taking care of our veterans as we continue to learn more — not waiting,” he said. “We’re not going to wait.
- The bill was due to be signed into law before Congress adjourned on July 4, but encountered procedural obstacles that delayed its passage.
- When the Constitution stated that the tax clause had to come from the House of Representatives, the Senate introduced the tax clause into the bill, meaning the bill at the time was technically unconstitutional.
- Both chambers accused the other of not noticing the hiccup and letting it pass, but the House later resolved the issue, sending the bill back to the Senate.
- In June, the bill passed the Senate in an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 84 to 14. The bill, which was largely unchanged, was subsequently blocked by 41 Republican senators who claimed it was a budgetary issue between mandatory and discretionary spending.
- Sen. Pat Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, introduced an amendment he said would get rid of a “budget stunt” as he claimed it would be an “unrelated spending frenzy.” Toomey said delaying the bill and back and forth is worth it because it puts the “spotlight” on Democrats. The amendment lost 47 to 48 when 60 votes were needed.