Procedural issues have thwarted a vote scheduled this week to finalize legislation that would greatly expand benefits for veterans who have suffered injuries from toxic exposure while on duty, but congressional leaders insist those issues can be resolved and legislation will be passed in the coming months. weeks.
Leaders in the House and Senate hoped to send the Pledge to Take Action on the Comprehensive Toxic Substances Act (or PACT Act) to President Joe Biden’s desk for final signature by July 4 after the Senate pushed the measure in an 84–14 bipartisan vote. a week ago.
The measure will cost nearly $280 billion over the next 10 years and provide new medical and disability benefits to one in five veterans living in America today.
This is the culmination of years of work by advocates who have argued that the current regulations prevent many victims of on-duty poisoning — in particular smoke from burning pits used to dispose of waste in Iraq and Afghanistan — from getting the care they deserve. .
The House of Representatives approved the measure in March. In response to Republican complaints about the cost of the new benefits and the potential increase in workload the measure would place on Department of Veterans Affairs employees, Senate leaders amended the bill to add phased implementation rules and more staff to help process claims.
But the changes run counter to rules that require new income requirements to go into effect in the House of Representatives, not the Senate. A House vote scheduled for Wednesday to finally approve the measure was delayed, and House leaders struggled to amend the measure before lawmakers began their two-week recess on Friday.
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman John Tester, D-Montana, attempted to push the amendment through the Senate floor late Thursday night, but the proposal was blocked by Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, one of 14 senators who opposed the move last week.
The tester called it a disappointment.
“There is [technical] problem and we need to fix it,” he said. “But in the process of our debate, we should not deny veterans medical care, what exactly [Toomey] does today.”
Congressional leaders stressed that procedural issues are not fatal to the future PACT Act, but instead represent a temporary delay.
The chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Rep. Mark Tacano, D-Calif., said he still intends to hold a House vote on the measure “after the Senate allows this procedural cop,” which will likely result in to the adoption of the law by mid-July.
“House and Senate leadership is not shying away from passing PACT,” he said in a statement. “This comprehensive package for veterans exposed to toxic substances has been my number one legislative priority, and I will continue to relentlessly bring it to President Biden’s desk.”
The vote in the House of Representatives may be easier next time than last. In March, the measure passed largely along party lines as Republicans raised concerns about the measure’s perceived shortcomings. Following the Senate amendments, senior House Veterans Affairs Committee member Mike Bost, D-Illinois, said he would support the bill when it reappears.
However, the complications have sparked frustration and anger from some supporters who have been lobbying for faster action for years.
Comedian Jon Stewart, who has led numerous rallies around Capitol Hill in support of PACT over the past year, on Twitter Thursday called the latest Senate delays “cynical bullshit that delays medical care for veterans.”
Both chambers will return from recess on July 11. Legislators will likely need a few days after that to work out procedural fixes and vote accordingly.
Biden has already signaled that he will sign the bill when it is finally passed by Congress.