Helena Independent Record: Montana senators tout defense bill as Trump threatens veto

by Tom Kuglin

Increased support for female veterans, expanded benefits for veterans suffering from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam and protections for veterans’ pensions are among the provisions of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act that Montana’s U.S. senators underscored Thursday.

The act is the nation’s annual defense package on military and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs budgets and spending, including annual military pay raises and authorization for other programs. It passed the U.S. House Tuesday on a vote of 335-78, moving it to the Senate. Montana governor-elect Rep. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, voted in favor.

Tester’s office said the Senate may vote on the bill as early as Friday.

The vote in the House and expected vote in the Senate come as Republican President Donald Trump has said he will veto the bill unless lawmakers included a provision repealing legal liability protections for social media companies called Section 230. The president has also pushed Congress to strip a provision in the bill allowing the renaming of military installations named for members of the Confederacy.

Montana’s congressional delegation said Thursday that they support the annual defense bill, …

If the president does veto the bill, a contingency of Republicans could decide to vote with Democrats to form a two-thirds vote to override. But a number of Republicans have also encouraged the president to address Section 230 in other legislation.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act shields companies such as Facebook, Twitter or Google from legal liability from content posted by users.

On Thursday Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Republican Sen. Steve Daines highlighted provisions they championed that were included in the defense bill.

Named for the first woman to serve in the U.S. Army during the American Revolution, The Deborah Sampson Act is sponsored by Tester in the Senate with co-sponsorships from Daines and more than 50 other senators. The provision earned unanimous passage in the Senate to be included in the defense bill.

The act adds resources specific to women including establishment of the Office of Women’s Health, expanded counseling services, additional days of maternity care and housing assistance.

“This is historic legislation to address the needs of women veterans across our country and we know how the military has changed over the last few decades where women play a critically important role in our nation’s military and we need to take care of them when they get out,” Tester said in a call with Montana media Thursday.

Also included in the defense bill is the Daines-sponsored FREE Veterans Act reestablishing criminal penalties for financial exploitation of veteran pensions. Tester is a co-sponsor of the bill.

The act combats unauthorized third-party agents that often charge exorbitant fees for managing veterans’ pensions. Under the bill, individuals could be prosecuted for making claims to the VA on behalf of veterans unless they are authorized to do so by the federal government. The bill also offers education to veterans on financial exploitation.

“I’m glad the Senate came together to pass these important bipartisan veterans bills to expand opportunities and programs for female veterans at the VA and take steps to protect veterans’ pensions from being exploited,” Daines said in a statement.

Tester was joined by Deer Lodge Vietnam veteran Rodney Williams and Veterans of Foreign Wars Deputy Director Matthew Doyle to talk about his sponsorship of the Fair Care for Vietnam Veterans Act. The bill passed as a Senate amendment with 94 votes, including a letter of support to leadership co-authored by more than 40 senators including Daines and Tester. It adds bladder cancer, Parkinsonism and hypothyroidism to the list of diseases the VA must recognize as associated with exposure to Agent Orange. Daines co-sponsored the amendment as well.

Such a designation, called a “presumption of service connection,” places veterans suffering from those diseases into a higher priority for care due to a recognized link to military service.

“I’m proud to have waged this fight,” Tester said. “Now Vietnam veterans suffering from diseases associated with exposure to Agent Orange are on the cusp to receive critical care and benefits that they’ve earned.”

Williams, who has battled hypothyroidism, applauded Tester’s advocacy for the bill and said many veterans are upset that it has taken years to have the link to Agent Orange formally recognized.

“It’s just kind of sad that they want to deny this stuff and it’s pretty much a fact that we got all this stuff in Vietnam,” he said.

Exclusion of those diseases made receiving care nearly impossible, Doyle said.

“Even though the scientific community has already linked these conditions to Agent Orange exposure, the VA has continually refused to add these diseases to its list of Agent Orange conditions,” he said.

Daines has also highlighted a provision of the defense bill setting a minimum number of C-130 aircraft used by the Montana National Guard and COVID-19 relief for reservists while Tester touted expanded mental health services for guardsmen and reservists.