Veterans and their loved ones gathered in Washington, D.C., on Thursday for what was supposed to be a long-awaited celebration.
The Senate finally was poised to pass a bill that would provide health care and benefits for millions of veterans injured by exposure to toxins, from Agent Orange in Vietnam to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, in a surprise move, 25 Republican senators blocked the measure on Wednesday — even though they had voted in favor of it just one month earlier.
Known as the PACT Act, the bill no longer would force generations of veterans to prove that their illness was caused by toxic exposures suffered in the military in order to get VA coverage. It had been hailed as the largest expansion of care in VA history, and was expected to cost $280 billion over a decade.
Activists had spent a dozen years campaigning for such an expansion — a period during which they lost many of their own, including Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson, for whom the bill is named. He served near a burn pit during his deployments to Kosovo and Iraq with the Ohio National Guard, and died of a rare cancer in 2020.
The bill — like many issues related to veterans' health — had amassed deep bipartisan support, and easily passed the Senate by an 84-14 vote in June. But a technical error required another vote, and this time, more than two dozen Republicans switched sides. The final tally was 55-42 (with three senators abstaining), falling short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.
Veterans groups, family members, longtime advocate Jon Stewart and several Democratic lawmakers gathered outside the U.S. Capitol after the vote on Thursday to voice their outrage.
"They lived up to their oath! These people thought they could finally breathe," Stewart said. "You think their trouble ends because the Pact Act passes? All that means is they don't have to decide between their cancer drugs and their house."
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), the chair of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, accused Senate Republicans of turning their backs on veterans and their families, in what he called an unacceptable "slap in the face" to service members.
"My colleagues can make up all sorts of excuses as to why they decided to change their vote for this bill, but the bottom line is, veterans will suffer and die as a result on behalf of these excuses, and that's why we've got to pass this bill," he said.
Who changed their votes — and why
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) has been leading opposition to the bill, and voted against it both times.
In remarks on the Senate floor, he decried it as a "budgetary gimmick" that would create $400 billion in unrelated spending by moving it from the discretionary to mandatory category. His office has said his proposed technical fix wouldn't reduce any spending on veterans or limit the expansion of care.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said that he supports the substance of the bill, but not the "accounting gimmick," and accused Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of trying to block Toomey's amendment.
But those same spending concerns didn't seem to pose an initial concern for the more than two dozen Republicans who voted for it last month only to abruptly change their stance. They are: Sens. John Barrasso, Marsha Blackburn, Roy Blunt, Mike Braun, Bill Cassidy, John Cornyn, Tom Cotton, Kevin Cramer, Ted Cruz, Joni Ernst, Deb Fischer, Bill Hagerty, Josh Hawley, Cindy Hyde-Smith, Jim Inhofe, Ron Johnson, John Kennedy, Roger Marshall, Mitch McConnell, Rob Portman, Ben Sasse, Tim Scott, Rick Scott, Dan Sullivan and Todd Young. Sens. Additionally, Sens. Steve Daines and Roger Wicker voted against the bill after not voting in June.
"Every single one has pictures with veterans on their Facebook pages, on their websites," said Susan Zeier, Heath Robinson's mother-in-law, outside the Capitol as her 9-year-old granddaughter wept nearby. "Well, screw that, they don't support veterans. If you won't vote on this bill, you do not support veterans."
Some of those senators are veterans themselves.
"Promises were made and promises were broken," said Kristina Keenan of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "Sens. Cotton, Ernst, Sullivan are veterans, and they are delaying healthcare for some of the men and women that they served with."
Ernst's office said her opposition was due to the budget issue, while the others did not respond to NPR's request for comment.
Some Democratic lawmakers have offered alternative explanations for their colleagues' sudden switch, noting that it comes just after they reached an agreement of their own on a separate reconciliation bill.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said in a statement that the "charitable explanation" is that Republicans simply changed their minds, with the alternative being that they "are mad that Democrats are on the verge of passing climate change legislation and have decided to take out their anger on vulnerable veterans."
"Either way, this is not a good day for veterans in this country," he added.
Speaking at Thursday's press conference, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) called the situation "the worst form of overt politicization I've literally ever seen" and urged people to make sure those 25 senators understand that "they have just sentenced veterans to death because they will not have the healthcare they have earned."
"We had strong bipartisan support for this bill. And at the 11th hour, Sen. Toomey decides that he wants to rewrite the bill," she said. "How he convinced 25 of his colleagues to change their vote, I have no idea. What the hell? How does this happen? How do you change your mind right when you're about to make a law that's gonna save lives? It makes no sense. It's an outrage and there has to be accountability."
What veterans advocates are saying, and what happens next
Veterans groups and activists are slamming Senate Republicans for blocking the measure, and have pledged to keep lobbying for it.
Many took to the podium at Thursday's press conference to demand accountability and further action, calling on lawmakers not to leave for August recess until they can pass the bill.
Schumer has said he would schedule another procedural vote for Monday.
Bob Carey of the veterans' service organization Independence Fund urged senators to stay overnight and into the weekend if needed, even offering to bring coffee, donuts and barbecue if it would help get the job done quickly.
"People tell us, 'we can get this passed in September, or during lame duck,'" he said at the podium. "When you have cancer, when you're sick, a month, two months is a lifetime, both figuratively and possibly literally. We've got to pass this now."
Tom Porter, the executive vice president for government affairs at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, noted that many of the 25 senators issued press releases touting their earlier votes in support of veterans, only to turn their backs on them.
Stewart, the former talk show host who's become a high-profile veterans advocate, lambasted the Republican senators in a furious, expletive-laden speech.
Stewart noted at one point that the lawmakers being addressed were likely indoors enjoying air conditioning, ignoring the veterans — at least one of whom was wearing an oxygen tube — braving the scorching heat for over an hour to try to make their point.
He also slammed Toomey's characterization of the bill's spending provision as a "slush fund," saying that the U.S. has much bigger funds — without guardrails — in support of its defense budget and overseas military operations.
"You don't support the troops," he said. "You support the war machine."
ASMA KHALID, HOST:
Veterans suffering from toxic wounds, from Agent Orange in Vietnam to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, were expecting to celebrate yesterday. After decades of fighting, a bill to grant them benefits in health care was poised to pass the Senate. Instead, in a surprise move, 25 Republican senators blocked the same measure they'd supported just last month. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Last month, the Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act passed the Senate 84-14 with deep bipartisan support. But a technical error required another vote. And this time, 25 Republicans switched their vote. Veterans groups had planned a victory celebration outside the Capitol. Instead, they gathered to rage against those senators.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SUSAN ZEIER: Every single one has pictures with veterans on their Facebook pages, on their websites. Well, screw that. They don't support veterans. If you vote no on this bill, you do not support veterans.
LAWRENCE: That's Susan Zeier, mother-in-law of Heath Robinson, the Ohio guardsman the bill is named after. Robinson's daughter, age 9, stood weeping by the podium. Robinson had lobbied for this bill until he died two years ago of a rare cancer. Democrat Jon Tester thanked the Republican senators who still voted for the bill. But he said any delay comes with a price.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JON TESTER: There are going to be veterans die between now and when this bill passes.
LAWRENCE: Republican Senator Pat Toomey led opposition to the bill, objecting on the Senate floor to what he called a slush fund.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PAT TOOMEY: It's a budgetary gimmick that has the intent of making it possible to have a huge explosion in unrelated spending, $400 billion.
LAWRENCE: But it's the same bill that 25 Republicans voted for last month. Outside the Capitol, celebrity advocate Jon Stewart called it a betrayal of sick veterans.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JON STEWART: They lived up to their oath. These people thought they could finally breathe. Well, they're not on Senate time, they're on human time, cancer time.
STEWART: Don't you have families?
LAWRENCE: Vets' groups say they'll keep lobbying and hold politicians accountable now and in November.
Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.