The Senate on Tuesday passed a bill to expand health care and disability benefits to millions of veterans — less than a week after more than two dozen Republicans blocked it and drew outrage from the veterans’ community, comedian Jon Stewart and others.
The Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, or the PACT Act, passed in a 86-11 vote. It now heads to President Joe Biden’s desk to be signed into law.
It should have passed the Senate last week. A similar version of the PACT Act passed the Senate in June, in an 84-14 vote. It’s not particularly controversial: It would allow soldiers, sailors and airmen exposed to pits of burnt waste in combat zones to be covered by the Veterans Affairs health care system for related illnesses. Many of these vets got sick from exposure to burn pits during the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars.
But last Wednesday, right after the news broke that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) had struck a deal on a massive tax and climate change package, 25 Republicans unexpectedly blocked the PACT Act despite previously voting to advance it. It made no sense, except in the context of Republicans having a full-blown tantrum about a Democratic deal they didn’t like and taking out their anger on a totally unrelated veterans bill.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) led the GOP effort to block the bill, saying he wanted to add an amendment related to budgetary spending.
The GOP vote to block the bill spurred veterans to show up outside the Capitol in protest, some of whom had been camped outside of the building for days. Stewart, who has advocated on behalf of veterans for years, joined them and tore into Republicans as “stab-vets-in-the-back senators.”
“If this is America first, then America is fucked,” Stewart fumed.
But on Tuesday, Republicans folded and agreed to move forward on the bill on the condition that they could get votes on three GOP amendments. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wanted to reduce aid to other countries to help pay for the PACT Act. Toomey wanted to classify funding for the PACT Act as discretionary versus mandatory. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) wanted to shift veterans care into private community care.
All of the amendments failed.
Just before the bill passed, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), the bill’s sponsor, tweeted a video of Stewart hugging him and thanking him outside the Capitol for getting the bill done.
“My man, pots and pans!” Stewart shouted at Tester.
“You brought this thing through and you made this happen,” he said, walking with his arm around the senator. “And these guys know that, and they appreciate it.”