Daily Montanan: ‘People have lost their minds’: Tester responds to toxic burn pit legislation failing

by Darrell Ehrlick

Last month, 84 United States senators voted in favor of bipartisan legislation that would have extended health coverage for military veterans exposed to toxic burn pits and later suffer diseases because of those harmful effects.

However, in a stunning floor vote on Wednesday night, the Senate fell four votes shy of passing the legislation that had been at least two years in the making by Montana’s senior Sen. Jon Tester. Tester, chairman of the Senate Veterans Committee, and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, had worked together to find an acceptable bill that would garner enough support to clear the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, and June’s previous vote seemed to have demonstrated more than enough support.

“I don’t get this and I don’t understand it,” said Tester, a Democrat. “I don’t know. This place tends to be surreal and this was a good example of it.”

One of those voting against the bipartisan measure was fellow Montana Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican. Daines had previously not voted on the measure on June 16. As Daines’ vote was being recorded, on the Senate floor he appeared to fist-bump fellow Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

A fist-bump by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, as legislation that would have provided healthcare benefits to veterans exposed to toxic burn pits while serving in the U.S. military is defeated in the United States Senate on July 27, 2022 (Clip via C-SPAN).

“To say I’m disappointed is an understatement,” Tester said. “To be fist-bumping about denying benefits. Man oh man, for the United States Senate not to support our veterans and not be willing to do that, that’s a really bad image.”

Daines’ office did not respond to questions about his vote, or what the fist-bump meant.

GOP blowback?

The vote for the PACT Act, or the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, originally was held on June 16, and cleared the upper chamber with 84 votes in support. However, a procedural technicality sent it back to the United States House because the bill involved appropriation of federal funds, and all appropriation bills must start in the House.

After that procedural maneuver was fixed, which didn’t change the substance or mechanics of the bill, it was approved by the House. That sent the measure back to the Senate for a final vote. Because of other issues and scheduling, the PACT Act sat on the Senate floor for more than a month, longer than typical.

Wednesday’s vote could have also gotten ensnared in the politics of the day. Just hours earlier, moderate Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, had announced that he’d struck a deal with other Senate Democrats on a bill that would pay down debt, close a corporate tax loophole, extend medical benefits for seniors and also invest in climate change. Republicans believed that Manchin would resist any of those elements because of his ties to the fossil fuel industry. Those issues have also been a part of legislation championed by the Biden Administration, which has seen its approval rating plummet during an election year. The compromise with Manchin likely infuriated the GOP, which had wanted to stall the President’s agenda.

Furthermore, such far-ranging legislation could also be passed through a Senate procedural move called “reconciliation” which only needs a 50-vote threshold to pass, guaranteeing passage if every Democrat votes for it.

In a press conference with Montana media Thursday, Tester didn’t deny that the PACT Act could have been torpedoed as political payback. Tester told reporters that he didn’t expect the vote to fail and only knew about it as the votes started to tally.

A fight over amendments?

Originally, Tester and Moran hammered out a deal that included two amendments proposed by Republicans. Tester said that he was fine with those amendments, but that party leaders Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.,  or Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, are the two leaders responsible for bringing them to a vote.

During the floor vote on Wednesday, Tester said neither amendment was offered, so the Senate did not vote on them.

Outgoing Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican, was the leading voice of opposition against the bill and he said he and other Republicans objected to it because it tied future legislators’ hands to fund toxic burn pit exposure. Some Republicans had proposed funding the measure, which the Congressional Budget Office scored as $278 billion during the course of 10 years, through a different process that would require reauthorizing periodically.

Tester said that he was unaware of the work Toomey was doing.

“He’s been doing a lot work in the past week to sink this bill and I was not aware of it,” Tester said.

Tester and others demanded that funding to help veterans exposed to toxins be made permanent, saying that care for them can’t be on a year-by-year basis.

“We should be imposing this on future Congresses,” Tester said.

Tester said that the Veterans Administration cannot move money or spend without Congressional approval and he was shocked that requiring the country to pay for sick veterans is something more senators wanted to debate.

“I think (Toomey) thinks there’s some kind of gimmick in this bill, but I am here to tell you, there’s not,” Tester said.

While Tester said he was disappointed by Daines’ lack of support, he said disagreement is part of politics and won’t affect their working relationship.

He likened the legislation to the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act, which Tester had supported and Daines had opposed vehemently.

“In some respects, I am even more disappointed in this vote than that,” Tester said.

After the vote on Wednesday, Tester struck a fiery tone of disappointment calling the vote an act of cowardice. By Thursday, the farmer from Big Sandy had a more somber tone, and was beginning to strategize about how to move his signature bill through the Senate and onto President Joe Biden’s desk.

“It hurts to say this, but it is a sad, sad day and dozens of Republicans have failed American veterans,” Tester said. “It’s a slap in the face to our veterans because the promises that we made to veterans that they’d be taken care of if they were damaged or injured by war when they returned home from serving are not being kept.”

Comedian and advocate Jon Stewart speaks about stalled toxic burn pit protections for veterans at a press conference in Washington, D.C., outside the Capitol on July 28, 2022 (Photo by Jennifer Shutt of States Newsroom).

He said this has been a top issue for many veterans organizations, and rarely have so many come together to support legislation.

“While this legislation waits, veterans, including those in Montana, will suffer and die as a result,” Tester said.

Next steps

Tester said he didn’t know what the next steps for the nearly-successful legislation were because usually the success or failure of any bill doesn’t come as a surprise. He said he’s pushing Schumer and other leaders to find a way to get the legislation passed before the Senate adjourns for a break next week.

Tester also told Montana reporters that he was open to considering other or different amendments, but so far, he said he hasn’t seen those.

Tester also said the backlash from veterans organizations may be enough to keep the legislation alive.

“I would tell veterans to get on the phone and give my colleagues a sense of religion,” Tester said. “Words were given. Promises were made.”

Several Washington, D.C., outlets have reported that the Democrats may try to put the legislation on the “unanimous consent agenda” – yet another procedural move to try to get it passed. However, Tester also doubted that would work because any senator can object to the procedure, and Toomey has vowed to stand against the bill.

“I can’t explain it other than people have lost their minds,” Tester said.

‘People have lost their minds’: Tester responds to toxic burn pit legislation failing – Daily Montanan