Senate Republicans are facing a showdown on Monday with a group of angry veterans who say they’ll refuse to leave Capitol Hill until the chamber passes a massive toxic exposure bill that was derailed last week.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, has vowed to bring the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxins, or PACT Act, back to the floor for a vote this week after 25 Republicans switched their vote to block the bill’s final passage.
“These men and women have fought for all of your freedoms and Congress has turned their backs on them,” said Rosie Lopez-Torres, executive director of Burn Pits 360, a group that advocates for veterans exposed to hazardous burn pits during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s shameful and it’s criminal.”
Ms. Lopez-Torres, who co-founded the group along with her husband and Iraq war veteran Le Roy Torres, is one of several veterans and advocates who have remained on “fire watch” at the Capitol since last Thursday, when the bill failed in the Senate.
“They’ve all been here since Thursday through the rain, through the sun,” she said. “They’re not leaving. They did one-year deployments. This is nothing to them. They will be here until they give us a vote.”
Several powerful veterans’ organizations including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and the Wounded Warrior Project back the legislation, which expands benefits for veterans who suffer illnesses linked to exposure to burn pit smoke and other toxins while serving.
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The groups, who have pressed for the legislation for years, expected final passage Thursday after the House passed the bill 342 – 88 two weeks before, and after the bill received support from the majority of Senate Republicans in June.
But during the Senate vote, 25 Republicans voted against the final bill over concerns that the bill, as written, included a “budget gimmick” that would allow spending under the bill to be moved from discretionary to mandatory spending.
“This provision is completely unnecessary to achieve the PACT Act’s stated goal of expanding health care and other benefits for veterans,” Sen. Pat Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, said on the Senate floor. “By failing to remove this gimmick, Congress would effectively be using an important veterans’ care bill to hide a massive, unrelated spending binge.”
Mr. Toomey was among 14 Republicans who objected to an earlier version of the bill when it came up for a vote in June, over the same concerns.
The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget also objected to the budgeting provisions included in the bill in June.
“With inflation surging and debt approaching record levels, we shouldn’t be putting another $300 billion on the national credit card when these benefits are so clearly worth fully paying for,” Maya MacGuineas, president of the group, said in a statement Monday.
But several Republicans who voted against the measure last week accuse Democrats of attempting to sneak in the budget provision at the last minute, and have stood by their vote amid a vocal backlash by veterans groups and advocates.
Comedian and long-time veterans’ advocate John Stewart thrashed Sen. Ted Cruz in a widely shared video over the weekend after the Texas Republican cited last-minute budgetary changes by Democrats as his reasoning for voting against the bill.
“Now, I’m not a big city, Harvard-educated lawyer, but I can read,” Mr. Stewart said, contending that there was nothing added to the bill at the last minute. “It’s always been mandatory spending, so the government can’t just cut off their funding at any point.”
The video sparked a back-and-forth that continued into Monday.
“Nothing changed in it,” Mr. Stewart said Monday as he stood with the veterans in front of the Capitol. “Ask any senator, any one of the senators that changed their votes. Point to the section of the bill that changed, that made your vote go from yes to no. It’s not there.”
Mr. Stewart called on Mr. Schumer to bring the bill to the floor on Monday, and for the Senate to remain in session until the bill is passed.
“This is the lowest-hanging fruit of a functioning society,” Mr. Stewart said. “If we can’t do this, the rest of us have no shot.”
“My suggestion to this Senate would be when you come back, if all the members aren’t here, keep the lights on,” he said. “Keep the doors open and don’t leave here tonight until you do the right thing by these folks. Don’t make this harder than it is.”