The Senate is voting Tuesday on the PACT Act, a bill to expand health care benefits for veterans who developed illnesses due to their exposure to burn pits during military service. The Senate is taking up amendments and procedural actions before voting on final passage.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday afternoon that he and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had come to an agreement and the vote will happen later that night. Schumer said there will be three amendment votes – two amendments that need 60 votes to move forward and 60 votes to end debate on the bill.
“I’m very optimistic that this bill will pass,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “So our veterans across America can breathe a sigh of relief … It took a while to get here, but I’m grateful for the bipartisan cooperation and support that will allow us to move forward today.”
The legislation would expand benefits for an estimated 3.5 million veterans exposed to toxic burn pits during the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The legislation would remove the burden of proof from veterans seeking care for conditions related to exposure from burn pits by presuming a number of conditions, including terminal cancers, are related to the exposure.
Veterans, military family members and advocates rally outside the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, in support of a bill that enhances health care and disability benefits for millions of veterans exposed to the toxic burn pits.
Mariam Zuhaib / AP
Burn pits are holes in the ground the U.S. military dug near bases in countries that had limited infrastructure where troops would dump trash and burn it to dispose of it.
The legislation has drawn the opposition of some Republicans, such as GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, while comedian Jon Stewart has been at the Capitol trying to rally support.
The bill initially passed the House and Senate in June, but due to a snag in the language, it had to go back to the House and Senate before it could be sent to President Biden’s desk. The legislation again passed the House but failed to advance beyond a procedural vote in the Senate last week. Twenty-five Republican senators who had voted for the bill in June voted against advancing the bill last week, citing an objection to how the legislation is paid for.
Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania has objected since June to a provision in the legislation language that would move $400 billion in preexisting discretionary veterans spending to make it mandatory spending. A measure that is paid for with mandatory spending generally does not have to be approved each year, as discretionary spending does. Toomey argues that this changed designation frees up funds that could be used on items unrelated to veterans.
Mr. Biden has blamed burn pits for the health problems of his late son, Beau Biden, who died of a brain tumor in 2015. In a 2019 speech to the Service Employees International Union, then-candidate Biden said because of his son’s “exposure to burn pits, in my view, I can’t prove it yet, he came back with stage four glioblastoma.”