Daily Inter Lake: Post-9/11 combat veterans suffer amid political ploy
A day planned for celebration by national Veterans Service Organizations turned to shock and downright outrage Thursday on the steps of the U.S. Capitol as Senate Republicans blocked passage of legislation that would expand health care and benefits to post-9/11 veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.
Up until last week, the Honoring Our PACT Act had been met with sweeping bipartisan support. In fact, just one month ago the legislation was cheered by Republicans and Democrats as it gained approval in the Senate with an overwhelming 84-14 tally.
But on Wednesday evening when the bill was brought forward on a procedural vote — nothing of substance in the bill changed between June and July — 25 Republicans stunningly reversed course and voted no on advancing the act.
The move set off Montana’s Sen. Jon Tester, chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, who is also the lead sponsor of the PACT Act along with Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran.
It’s “political malpractice,” a visibly upset Tester demanded on the Senate floor after the vote reversal, calling it a sad day for the Senate.
“Make no mistake about it,” he asserted. “The American people are sick and tired of the games that go on in this body. They’re sick and tired of us working for Democrats or working for Republicans and not working for the American people. But this is bigger than that.”
It certainly is.
In the wars and military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan following 9/11, the U.S. military would routinely use open burn pits set ablaze with jet fuel to dispose of tires, batteries, medical waste and other toxic materials. According to a VA report, smoke from these pits contained substances that may have short- and long-term health effects, especially for veterans who were exposed for long periods or those with underlying conditions. Veterans groups have likened burn pit exposure to the Agent Orange herbicide that Vietnam veterans were exposed to.
It’s estimated that 3.5 million veterans were exposed to burn pits, including some 60,000 Montana veterans. Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson, an Ohio veteran who the bill is named for, died in 2020 as a result of a toxic exposure from his deployments to Kosovo and Iraq.
The PACT Act proposes to expand health care for post-9/11 combat veterans, while creating a framework that establishes presumptions of service connection related to toxic exposure and expanding the VA’s list of service presumptions. It would also improve resources to support VA’s claims processing, according to Tester’s office.
The two dozen Republicans who voted against the PACT Act last week, including Montana’s Sen. Steve Daines, insist they’re hung up on the legislation’s funding mechanism. But comments from Daines’ office suggest other factors are at play — namely political revenge.
“If the spending mechanism concern is fixed within the PACT Act, then the Senator would support the bill,” a Daines’ spokesperson told Newsy reporter Martisa Georgiou. “The Democrats have a choice to make — do they want to invest in veterans’ health care or spend hundreds of billions of dollars on their Green New Deal and raise taxes on Americans — they can’t do it all.”
To clarify that comment, U.S. veterans’ access to health care is being held hostage in response to President Biden’s inflation-reduction and climate change spending proposal.
It’s political gamesmanship, and disgustingly, veterans are being used as the pawns.
Tester hit it square on the head when he said young men and women thinking about joining the armed forces are watching.
“We have an all volunteer military in this county,” Tester said. “If we don’t take care of veterans when they come home, they’re going to say, ‘Why should I sign on the dotted line?’”
And given these embarrassing theatrics in Washington, D.C., why would they?
Congressional leaders indicate the bill could come up for a vote again as soon as Monday. The Senate needs to do what it takes to finally get this critical legislation passed and on President Biden’s desk.
Tweak the “spending mechanism” if need be — although that wasn’t raised as an issue when a majority of Republicans OK’d the bill in June — and set aside the political theatrics. Just get it done so veterans who have given so much can have access to the health care they deserve.