Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said he plans to give “our Republican friends” one more chance to vote on the burn pits bill before the Senate goes off on a one-month recess.
Mr Schumer spoke to The Independent on Capitol Hill on Thursday hours after GOP lawmakers voted to block a landmark bill that would provide much-needed healthcare and disability benefits to veterans sick and dying from toxic exposure to burn pits.
The Democrat revealed he plans to bring the vote back to the Senate floor on Monday in a last-ditch effort to get the bill passed before lawmakers head off on recess on 5 August.
“We are going to give our Republican friends another opportunity to vote on this Monday night,” he said.
He added that he will also give Senator Pat Toomey the chance to bring his amendments to the floor “and try to get the votes”.
Pennsylvania Republican Mr Toomey voted against the bill and has been complaining for weeks about it, saying that he wanted to add an amendment on provisional spending.
Following Wednesday’s vote, he claimed he was trying to address a “budget gimmick” in the bill that he said would lead to an increase in spending “on who knows what”.
His comments were slammed by Democratic Senator Jon Tester who told him veterans will die because of the delay he and his fellow GOP lawmakers are causing.
On Wednesday, the PACT Act collapsed in the US Senate when dozens of Republicans unexpectedly changed their minds and decided to vote against it.
The bill received just 55 of the needed 60 votes to pass a cloture motion on Wednesday, as just eight Republicans voted to move it forward.
The sudden refusal to support the bill that will provide healthcare to thousands of sick veterans came as a surprise as 25 of the GOP lawmakers who voted against it had voted to pass the same bill just one month earlier.
Back on 16 June, senators voted 84 to 14 in favour of the bill, in a move that was celebrated by veterans, their families and advocates who have spent years battling for the US government to take the issue of burn pits seriously.
The vote meant it seemed certain that the bill would become law in a matter of weeks.
Senator Pat Toomey has pushed back on the bill for weeks
(2022 CQ-Roll Call, Inc.)
First it was sent back to the House for a final vote on the Senate’s amendments.
There, it passed with a 342-88 vote on 14 July.
Because of a minor technical fix the House made, the Senate was required to vote on it again before it could be sent to President Joe Biden’s desk to be signed into law.
But – between one month and the next – dozens of Republican senators decided that they no longer supported expanding healthcare and disability access to US servicemembers and decided to change their vote.
Now, with the Senate scheduled to go on recess in a week’s time, thousands of veterans in desperate need of healthcare and disability benefits have now been left high and dry for even longer.
Democratic lawmakers, veterans and advocates slammed the GOP lawmakers for blocking the bill in a highly emotional press conference on Thursday morning.
TV host Jon Stewart, who has been lobbying Congress to pass legislation to support veterans who are sick and dying from toxic exposure to burn pits, slammed the “lies” and “hypocrisy” from Senators Toomey and Mitch McConnell.
The TV host accused the Republicans of “abject cruelty” and said their refusal to pass the bill will cost lives.
“I’m used to the lies, I’m used to the hypocrisy, I’m used to the cowardice, I’m used to all of it, but I am not used to the cruelty,” he said.
Veterans and advocates have condemned the GOP lawmakers now stopping veterans getting healthcare
The veterans who are sick and dying don’t have that time to wait until after the recess, he said, as he branded the GOP lawmakers “cowards”.
“Now they say, ‘Well, this will get done. Maybe after we get back from our summer recess, maybe during the lame duck’ – because they’re on Senate time. Do you understand? You live around here? Senate time is ridiculous,” he said.
“These motherf***ers live to 200. They’re tortoises. They live forever and they never lose their jobs and they never lose their benefits and they never lose all those things.”
“Well, they’re not on Senate time,” he said of the veterans. “They’re on human time. They’re on cancer time.”
New York Senator Kristen Gillibrand echoed the outrage over the sudden turnaround from her GOP counterparts.
“This is total bulls***,” she shouted. “They have just sentenced veterans to death.”
When asked for his reaction to Mr Stewart’s comments, Mr Toomey replied: “That’s not worth responding to.”
His office directed The Independent to his tweet on Wednesday where he said he was trying to solve a “budget gimmick”.
“Tonight, the Senate voted to give us the chance to fix a completely unnecessary budget gimmick in the underlying text of the PACT Act. This gimmick allows $400B in spending completely unrelated to veterans care,” he said.
“We can easily fix this tonight, and there is no reason we cannot do so NOW. This simple fix would not reduce spending on veterans in the underlying bill by a single penny. It’s wrong to use a veterans bill to hide an unrelated slush fund.”
When asked for comment, Mr McConnell’s office referred The Independent to his comments on the Senate floor where he said that he supports the “substance of the bill” but that lawmakers first need to “fix the underlying accounting issue”.
“Yesterday, the Senate should have been able to clear bipartisan legislation to expand VA health benefits for millions of men and women who have served bravely in our armed forces… A bill this important and this bipartisan deserves for us to fix this accounting gimmick, and then it deserves to become law,” he said.
Under the legislation, 23 cancers, respiratory illnesses and other conditions will now be presumptively linked to a veterans’ exposure to burn pits while on deployment overseas.
This means service men and women who have returned home from serving their country and developed one of these conditions will be given automatic access to healthcare and disability benefits.
It will also fund federal research on the impact of burn pits on the nation’s troops.
An estimated 3.5 million servicemembers and veterans are estimated to have been exposed to burn pits and airborne toxins while serving the US overseas, according to the Veterans Affairs (VA).
During America’s post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, huge open-air pits were used to burn mountains of trash including food packaging, human waste and military equipment on US military bases.
Thousands of US service members returned home from deployment and developed health conditions including rare cancers, lung conditions, respiratory illnesses and toxic brain injuries caused by breathing in the toxic fumes from the pits.
But, until now, the burden of proof has always been on veterans to prove their condition is directly caused by this toxic exposure.
In September 2020, a senior VA official testified before Congress that almost 80 percent of disability claims mentioning burn pits were rejected between 2007 and 2020.
In the last six months, the president has made tackling the issue of burn pits a higher priority and repeatedly urged lawmakers in the House and Senate to pass legislation to support veterans.
During his State of the Union address in March, said that he believes his son Beau Biden may have died as a result of toxic exposure to burn pits during his deployment to Iraq.