Blindsided veterans erupted in anger and indignation Thursday after Senate Republicans suddenly tanked a widely supported bipartisan measure that would have expanded medical coverage for millions of combatants exposed to toxic burn pits during their service.
Supporters of the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act — or PACT Act — overwhelmingly expected the House-passed bill to sail through to the president's desk for signature.
But in a move that shocked and confused veteran groups Wednesday night, 41 Senate Republicans blocked the bill's passage, including 25 who had supported it a month ago.
"We really expected yesterday to be a procedural vote that would go with easy passage," said Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonprofit veterans’ organization. "That was the absolute expectation."
The PACT Act would have expanded VA health care eligibility to more than 3.5 million post-9/11 combat veterans who were exposed to toxins while serving in the military.
The Senate passed the original legislation 84-14 in June. It underwent minor changes when it moved to the House, where it passed 342-88. When the bill returned to the Senate, the bill had not changed much but the view — and vote — of 25 senators did.
While it's unclear what prompted the flip, veterans believe the move was political.
"We’ve seen partisanship and games within Congress for years," Butler said. "But what is shocking is that so many senators would literally be willing to play with veterans’ lives so openly like this."
"They’re manufacturing reasons to vote against legislation that they literally voted for just last month," Butler added. "And so it’s really a new level of low."
Veterans who were exposed to toxins during deployments said the lives of sick and dying people who served the nation are on the line.
"It’s angering. It’s frustrating," said Tom Porter, 54, who developed asthma after spending a year in Afghanistan with the U.S. Navy Reserve from 2010 to 2011.
In the first week of his deployment, Porter said he suffered a serious reaction with his lungs and could not breathe.
Le Roy Torres, 49, who was diagnosed with a lung disease and a toxic brain injury after he was deployed to Iraq with the U.S. Army, said he was devastated about the failure of the bill and urged lawmakers to reconvene immediately.
“I know these senators are getting ready for a break. But I didn’t get a break when I was deployed,” he said. “They should not be allowed to go home until they figure this out.”
“I was taught in the Army not to accept defeat and never quit,” he added. “I’m going to keep pressing on this issue.”
Torres’ wife, Rosie, the co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit Burn Pits 360, said the 25 senators who flipped their votes "should be ashamed of themselves."
In protest, she and other advocates plan to camp on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Thursday night.
“These veterans fought for our freedom during the war," she said. “It’s partisan tactics on the backs of veterans that are sick and dying.”
The PACT Act was named after Heath Robinson, a sergeant with the Ohio National Guard who was deployed to Kosovo and Iraq. He died in 2020 from lung cancer, which he blamed on burn pit exposure.
Open-air burn pits were common at U.S. military bases during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dangerous materials, from electronics and vehicles to human waste, were regularly doused in jet fuel and set ablaze, spewing toxic fumes and carcinogens into the air.
Many others have developed cancers, respiratory illnesses and other serious conditions as a direct result of exposure to toxins, veteran groups say.
President Joe Biden, who has championed the PACT Act, said he believes his late son Beau Biden’s brain cancer was linked to exposure to burn pits while he was deployed in Iraq in 2008.
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Penn., who voted against the legislation in June, has remained vocally critical of the bill. Yesterday, after the vote, he said that the bill included a “budget gimmick" that moved $400 billion over 10 years from “discretionary to the mandatory spending category,” which he considered unreasonable. His view did not change in Wednesday's vote.
The views of Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., certainly did, however.
Johnson voted for the bill in June, but voted against it on Wednesday. He said in a statement that the bill “opens the door for more reckless government spending."
Why Republicans, like Johnson, changed their minds a month after passing the legislation remains unclear, and it was confounding and unclear to veterans and advocates who shared their ire in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.
The comedian Jon Stewart, who has advocated for 9/11 first responders and military veterans for years, excoriated Republican lawmakers outside the Capitol Thursday, angrily describing their opposition to the bill as “an embarrassment to the Senate, to the country, to the Founders.”
“Their constituents are dying and they’re gonna get it done in recess,” Stewart said in fiery and expletive-laden remarks. “You know, tell their cancer to take a recess, tell their cancer to stay home and go visit their families. This is disgrace. If this is America first, America is [expletive].”