The U.S. Senate passed legislation on Tuesday night that will expand benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits and toxins while serving, ending an impasse initiated by Republicans that delayed passage of the bill for almost a week.
Democrats and Republicans struck an agreement to move forward and vote again on the Honoring Our PACT Act after GOP lawmakers raised objections over how the bill was funded. They agreed to vote on a series of three Republican amendments and final passage of the bill.
The Senate advanced the legislation in a 86-11 vote, clearing the 60-vote threshold and garnering support from both parties. The three amendments also needed to secure 60 votes, but they all fell short and weren’t adopted. The PACT Act now heads to President Joe Biden’s desk, where he’s expected to quickly sign the bill into law.
The PACT Act seeks to expand benefits for veterans and service members by removing the burden on veterans to prove an illness is related to exposure to toxins. It establishes a “presumption of service connection” for 23 illnesses that may have developed from their time of service. Burn pits were used by the military in Afghanistan and Iraq to dispose of trash and other waste.
“After needless and shameful delay, the tireless advocacy of our veterans made today’s victory possible,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who serves on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and helped work on parts of the legislation. “This bill is a victory for veterans who served and sacrificed abroad and now suffer from insidious, horrific diseases caused by exposure to burn pits and toxic chemicals.”
The PACT Act seemed poised for smooth passage last Wednesday when it came up for a procedural vote. The bill previously passed both chambers of Congress by large bipartisan margins but needed to go through the Senate once more after some technical corrections were made. The legislation passed the Senate in June, 84-14.
But in a surprising development last week, 25 Republicans who previously supported the PACT Act switched their vote. The bill failed to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to advance and overcome filibusters.
Veterans across the country gathered in Washington, D.C., to celebrate passage last week, but instead stayed through the weekend and into this week to protest the delay. They’ve been camped out on the steps of the U.S. Capitol demanding that Republicans end their blockade.
Most Republicans said they didn’t oppose the substance of the bill but took issue with the designation of the funding.
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who voted against the legislation both times, raised concerns over the way funds can be spent, calling it a “budgetary gimmick.” He said he takes no issue with the new spending of $280 billion but warned that hundreds of billions of dollars in existing spending could be used for “completely unrelated programs.”
Toomey proposed an amendment to change that spending from mandatory to discretionary, which means it’s subjected to the annual appropriations process.
“I’m supposed to trust future Congresses not to go on a spending spree. Seriously?” Toomey said Tuesday during debate of the PACT Act.
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., urged votes against all three amendments, saying they would further delay the process since any changes made by the Senate would require another vote in the House.
According to the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, there are an estimated 3.5 million veterans in the U.S. who have been exposed to burn pits and toxic exposure.
The number of veterans from Connecticut who’ve been exposed is unclear, though a voluntary registry run through the V.A. gives some indication of exposures to burn pits and airborne hazards. Between June 2014 and September 2021, a total of 260,982 U.S. veterans and service members have filled out the questionnaire. In Connecticut, 1,262 have completed it.
The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.