Republicans backtrack as Senate passes burning pit law

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The Senate overwhelmingly gave final approval on Tuesday to legislation aimed at helping veterans fight illnesses they say are linked to toxic exposure, especially those who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On an 86-11 roll call, the vote served as a political surrender to Senate Republicans, a week after they blocked consideration of popular legislation, ostensibly out of political spite, as Democrats reached an agreement on the line of the party on a massive unrelated domestic policy bill that could be considered later this week.

Republicans have tried for several days to argue that last Wednesday’s blocking of the PACT Act was tied to a technical argument over which part of the federal budget would fund $280 billion in new allocations for veterans’ health programs.

But 25 Republicans who had recently backed the exact same bill switched votes last Wednesday, less than an hour after Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.) and Sen. Joe Manchin III (DW.Va.) have announced their agreement. on ambitious legislation unrelated to the PACT law.

Republicans have absorbed a series of political stunts, led by comedian Jon Stewart and several high-profile veterans’ groups, which by lunchtime Tuesday left many ready to settle the issue and vote. to quickly send the legislation to President Biden’s office.

“He just beat them,” Schumer said Wednesday during a celebratory visit to a few dozen veterans who have held a vigil on the Capitol’s North Lawn since last week’s failed vote.

Democratic leaders allowed Stewart and dozens of veterans, their families and other supporters into the chamber’s public gallery for the latest round of votes — something that has happened less than a handful of times since. the onset of the global pandemic in March 2020 prompted officials not to allow the general public access to the House and Senate galleries.

In the end, 37 Republicans joined 49 members of the Democratic caucus in voting for the legislation, which requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to presume certain illnesses came from exposure to hazardous waste incineration, mostly focused on the issue. hotbeds of recent wars. in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This would remove the burden of proof from injured veterans.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) missed the vote due to recent hip replacement surgery.

In the closing moments of the debate, activists grew emotional. Stewart, who took up the cause following a similar effort he helped lead for first responders suffering from the lingering effects of the 9/11 site, cradled his head in his right hand and leaned to cry at the start of roll call. The crowd lit up with brief cheers as the gavel fell, quickly being reprimanded by officials for breaching the decorum that demands silence.

Asked to explain the GOP reversal, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) offered no general explanation and acknowledged that the legislation would pass with broad support.

“These things happen all the time with the legislative process,” McConnell told reporters at his weekly press conference, conceding defeat. “I think at the end of the day veterans service organizations will be happy with the end result.”

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, credited veterans groups and Stewart with taking what was once a relatively obscure health issue and making it one national cause.

“That’s who really made it, that’s who raised it,” Tester said as he joined Schumer at the impromptu celebration outside the Capitol.

Biden also highlighted the issue in his State of the Union address in March, followed by a trip to a Texas community next week to highlight its importance.

“We’re following the science either way, but we’re also not going to force veterans to suffer in limbo for decades,” Biden said during the March visit to Texas.

In his remarks, the president noted that his son Beau served in and around Baghdad as a Judge Advocate General in the Delaware Army National Guard, at bases where waste was burned at a site in outdoors.

State Attorney General Beau Biden died in 2015 of brain cancer, although no diagnosis has ever linked the cancer to his service in Iraq or other overseas assignments.

In a sign of his own dedication to the issue, the president planned to surprise veterans watching outside the Capitol this weekend with a pizza delivery, but he tested positive for a rebound case of coronavirus and resumed his quarantine.

Instead, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough arrived with the pizza.

Experts are often unsure of a direct link between specific cancers or diseases and the burning hotspots in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the military has often burned large amounts of waste – including plastics, batteries or parts of vehicles – which released plumes of dangerous chemicals into the air.

Veterans must then prove that there is a direct link between their cancer and the chemicals in the burning pit, a threshold that can sometimes be difficult to achieve, especially if the disease does not develop until years after a deployment. . Studies have shown that Veterans Affairs rejects the vast majority of applications.

“You could talk to one of these people and they would say we’d rather not be here.”

Schumer took a similar approach, glad the legislation finally passed.

“All’s well That ends well.”

Denise W. Whigham