WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer vowed Sunday to hold a new Senate floor vote this week on legislation aimed at aiding veterans exposed to toxic burn pits, days after Republicans delayed final passage of the bill, citing technical concerns over how the measure is funded.
Schumer (D-N.Y.), speaking at a Manhattan news conference where he was joined by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and veterans advocates, noted there was bipartisan support for the bill before it was scuttled by 25 Republicans last week. Those Republicans blocked the bill from final passage despite all voting in favor of it during a June vote.
“Veterans here in New York and Long Island put their lives on the line to defend our nation and its freedom, but now they have to wage another war here to get the health care they deserve,” Schumer said. “They sacrificed everything, and the very least we can do as a country is ensure they receive top care.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs has said that about 3.5 million U.S. service members who served overseas in the wake of the 9/11 attacks may have been exposed to toxic chemicals from their service. The burn pits, often fueled with jet fuel, were used to burn everything from sensitive computer equipment to human waste and medical waste at base sites, Gillibrand said.
WHAT TO KNOW
- The PACT ACT — The Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxins Act — calls for expanding access to free medical care to veterans who have been exposed to toxic chemicals during their service.
- The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has said up to 3.5 million U.S. service members who served in post-9/11 duty may have been exposed to chemicals, often from burn pits that were set up to destroy sensitive equipment, human waste, and medical waste.
- The bill is expected to cost $280 billion over the next decade, according to a study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Senate Republicans making the rounds of the Sunday morning political talk show circuit defended delaying the vote, arguing that the bill should be amended so that Congress must vote annually for the funding of services through the appropriations process, versus the current structure that would make the funding mandatory under the Department of Veterans Affairs budget.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), the sponsor of the budgetary amendment, told CNN’s “State of the Union” that “Republicans are not opposed to any of the substance of the PACT Act,” referring to the full name of the bill — The Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxins Act — but believed Republicans should have the opportunity to submit amendments before a final vote is held.
“We have been allowed no amendment votes on the biggest change to the VA in I don't know how long,” Toomey said. “So I think we ought to have a few votes. I want to have my amendment considered, because I think this is important.”
Congressional Democrats have accused the Senate Republicans of derailing the vote over a last minute deal struck by Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Va.) to revive portions of President Joe Biden’s climate, health care and tax reform agenda. But Toomey on Sunday said his objections were strictly based on his procedural concerns over the funding of the burn pits bill.
Schumer on Sunday said Senate Republicans blocked the bill for “needless reasons” and said he offered Toomey “an amendment, but [Republicans] still voted no.” Schumer said he believed there would be enough Republican votes in a revote that could come Monday or Tuesday.
Gillibrand said the bill was about “giving the service members the health care and support that they have already earned.”
“We know a lot about what these toxic gases are like, because we went through it with the 9/11 health bill,” Gillibrand said. “Our service members and our first responders and our community members who suffered and are dying from the toxins released after 9/11."
John Feal, founder of the Nesconset-based FealGood Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of 9/11 first responders, speaking alongside Schumer said the delayed vote showed “politics came before human life.”
Feal said activists would continue to put pressure on Republican lawmakers.
Dozens of veterans have been camping out on the steps of the U.S. Capitol vowing not to leave until the burn pits legislation is passed.
Comedian and activist Jon Stewart, appearing on NBC’s "Meet the Press," denounced Republicans for delaying a vote, noting that veterans were continuing to die of their burn pit related illnesses.
“We’ve had veterans who were advocates alongside us — Sergeant Wesley Black, Captain Kate Hendricks Thomas — who died while fighting for this bill,” Stewart said. “Sick, utterly incapacitated by the injustices and the illnesses that they’ve been dealing with, and yet they decided to spend this last precious times of their life fighting so that the other men and women that they were brothers and sisters with in the military never have to go through this.”