The US Senate passed the Honoring Our PACT Act on Tuesday night in an 86-11 vote, expanding health care for 3.5 million of America’s veterans who were exposed to toxic burn pits in the post 9/11-era.
The legislation also covers health benefits for other veterans exposed to chemicals, such as Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, during their military service.
The measure was sent to the White House after Republicans had blocked the legislation last week, objecting to the inclusion of $400 billion in mandatory spending that would not be subject to annual appropriations review — unlike the usual discretionary spending for federal agencies and programs that Congress reviews and approves annually.
Republicans argue that under the PACT Act, Democrats could theoretically spend $40 billion annually over 10 years on other needs unrelated to veteran care because the $400 billion authorization over a decade is considered mandatory.
But supporters of the bill noted that Republicans had previously supported the measure’s mandatory spending. Democrats argued the GOP was shifting its position because it was unhappy with a separate deal worked out by Sens. Charles Schumer (DN.Y.) and Joe Manchin (DW.Va.) on climate change, health care and taxes.
The GOP came under tremendous pressure to shift from veterans who were camped out on the US Capitol steps. Those veterans had a high-profile ally in Jon Stewart, the former “Daily Show” host.
Before the vote on final passage, the Senate agreed to three cost-controlling amendments on the bill, which led a number of Republicans to back it.
But these 11 GOP senators still voted against the package on final passage. The Hill has reached out to all 11.
Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.)
Toomey led the opposition effort to the bill last week when he complained about the mandatory spending, which he called a “budgetary gimmick” on the Senate floor.
“My concern about this bill has nothing to do with the purpose of the bill,” Toomey said. “This budgetary gimmick is so unrelated to the actual veterans issue that has to do with burn pits, that it’s not even in the House version of this bill.”
Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.)
Shortly before the Senate voted Tuesday, Paul railed against the bill and said it would put the economy at risk.
“This bill would cost hundreds of billions of dollars at a time when the national debt is climbing over $30 trillion and inflation is at a 40-year high,” Paul said on the Senate floor.
Sen. Mike Crapo (Idaho)
Crapo told The Hill he has co-sponsored four other bills in the Senate that would address veterans exposed to toxic burn pits and related injuries.
In a statement, the senator said he is “committed to ensuring health and disability benefits are provided to veterans exposed to toxic substances while on their tours of duty.”
He ultimately did not support the PACT Act because he said it authorized a “slush fund” in mandatory spending.
“I have a strong record of supporting veterans to ensure they have access to high-quality health care, opportunities to thrive following their transition from the military and protecting their Second Amendment rights,” Crapo said.
“I, too, remain committed to Idaho veterans impacted by burn pits and toxic exposure and will continue to support bipartisan legislation that can withstand necessary fiscal standards to ensure solvency and endurance, not additional slush fund spending placed on the American people,” he added .
Sen. Thom Tillis (NC)
Tillis told the Raleigh News Observer he had doubts about the ability of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to deal with backlogs and wait times for veterans seeking care.
“Congress has an obligation to ensure the VA can effectively and efficiently implement any comprehensive toxic exposure legislation and, unfortunately, I continue to have reservations about the Department’s ability to do so,” he told the news outlet.
The PACT Act will aid veterans who were exposed to toxic chemicals at North Carolina military bases Camp Lejeune and Marine Corps Air Station New River.
Sen. James Lankford (Okla.)
In a Facebook live video Tuesday night, Lankford said the legislation “limits access to outside physicians,” creating roadblocks for veterans who wish to seek care at places other than the VA.
“Many want to go to a family physician or one that’s closer to them,” Lankford said. “With many areas in rural Oklahoma, the people have to drive a very long way to be able to get to a VA hospital and I am very passionate about them getting to one that’s close to them.”
And like Tillis, the senator raised additional concerns with wait times, suggesting the bill increases waiting periods at the VA and does not resolve lengthy backlogs for veterans seeking care.
Sen. Mike Lee (Utah)
The Hill has requested comment from Lee’s office.
Sen. Cynthia Lummis (Wyo.)
On Tuesday night, Lummis said 168,000 vets were currently waiting for VA services, which she called “unacceptable.”
“If we pass the PACT Act, as is, that number jumps to over a million,” she tweeted, offering another bill from his colleague, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who would allow veterans to seek care at facilities in their communities.
Sen. James Risch (Idaho)
A spokesperson for Risch’s office said the senator was a strong supporter of veterans but did not support the $400 billion in mandatory spending.
“Unfortunately, Democrats wrote in a $400 billion hole in the discretionary budget they can fill with spending totally unrelated to veterans,” the spokesperson said. “It is inappropriate to use a bill for veterans as a backdoor to usher in huge sums of unrelated spending.”
Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah)
Romney’s office pointed to remarks the senator made in June about the legislation, when he raised concerns about adding “hundreds of billions of dollars to the national debt” and with implementing a “dramatic expansion of qualifying conditions that aren’t necessarily service-connected disabilities .”
“We should absolutely help veterans who have contracted illnesses as a direct result of toxic exposure during their service. However, the scope and cost of this bill is astronomical and unjustified,” he said, according to the remarks forwarded to The Hill.
“We have a collective responsibility to the veterans who have served our country, and I would support legislation that better targets disability eligibility requirements based on scientific evidence and research,” the senator added.
Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.)
Shelby tweeted Tuesday night that he “remained a strong advocate for our veterans” but could not support the $400 billion mandatory spending provision.
“The PACT Act would reclassify nearly $400 billion in VA funding, allowing Dems to instead spend that on their liberal wish list,” he wrote. “I want to support the PACT Act, but this budget gimmick must be fixed.”
Sen. Tommy Tuberville (Ala.)
In a Twitter thread on Tuesday night, Tuberville said he was concerned about the “many provisions in the bill that require amending to ensure the VA can deliver on this law.”
“I want to know that the VA can implement this comprehensive bill in a fair and effective way, and right now, I am not confident that that is the case,” the senator wrote.