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Tester blasts blocking of veteran toxic exposure legislation

Tester blasts blocking of veteran toxic exposure legislation
Posted at 7:28 PM, Jul 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-28 20:07:36-04

HELENA — Comprehensive legislation aimed to address the health care needs of toxic-exposed veterans failed a procedural vote on Wednesday, with Republicans blocking the legislation and leaving its future uncertain.

Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022 only received 55 of the needed 60 votes to pass a cloture motion on Wendesday. The bill had been expected to see final passage by the end of the week.

Montana’s Democratic U.S. Senator Jon Tester, who also serves as Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, blasted the blocking of the legislation saying some of his colleagues were putting politics over veterans' health.

“This eleventh-hour act of cowardice will actively harm this country’s veterans and their families. Republicans chose today to rob generations of toxic-exposed veterans across this country of the health care and benefits they so desperately need—and make no mistake, more veterans will suffer and die as a result,” said Tester in a statement.

The legislation initially passed the Senate in June by a vote of 84 to 14 where it went to the House for approval of the Senate’s amendments. House approval was delayed due to a dispute over a provision since a tax provision cannot originate in the Senate. A slightly altered bill was approved by the House and sent to the Senate.

On the floor, Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, said he voted against the bill because it would create $400 billion in unrelated spending.

"Completely unrelated to the $280 billion in spending there is a mechanism created in this bill, a budgetary gimmick that has the intent of making it possible to have a huge explosion in unrelated spending," said Toomey.

Tester said the provision wasn't new and was needed to ensure the Department of Veterans Affairs could address future toxic exposure concerns.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., changed his initial “yay” vote to “nay” on Wednesday in order to enter a motion to reconsider.

Blocking of the legislation also comes after Democratic leaders announced plans for a comprehensive budget reconciliation measure that would add climate and tax provisions. Republican leaders said previously their caucus would oppose such measures.

Montana’s Republican Senator Steve Daines voted against the PACT Act on Wednesday after supporting the legislation in the past.

“Do the Democrats want to invest in veterans' healthcare or spend hundreds of billions of dollars on their Green New Deal and raise taxes on all Americans — they can’t have it all. Senator Tester has the power to kill Biden and Schumer’s revived tax and spend bill — it just takes one Senate Democrat,” said Daines spokesperson.

As Daines' vote was being recorded on Wednesday he was seen on the floor walking up to a group of senators and fist bumping Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. A spokesperson for Daines said the senator was greeting Sen. Cruz, not celebrating the vote.

Tester was asked by reporters on Thursday if he supported the proposed budget reconciliation legislation. The senator said he generally supported the measure if it helped cut the nation's deficit, but wanted to see the text of the bill before throwing his full support behind it.

Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022 is an amended version of the Honoring Our PACT Act which passed the House earlier this year. It aims to expand coverage for post-9/11 combat veterans exposed to burn pits, expand the list of countries for presumptive Agent Orange exposure and increase funding for the VA to research toxic exposure.

In recent years the Department of Veterans Affairs has recognized that nearly 3.5 million post-9/11 veterans suffered prolonged and pervasive exposure to burn pits and other toxic chemicals they could not avoid. Burn pits were how the military disposed of waste — including plastics — and have been linked to cancer, respiratory illnesses and other diseases.

According to data from the VA, approximately 66,000 Montana veterans could have been exposed to toxic substances during their service.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated with additional information about the vote and quotes from Sen. Toomey on the floor.