(The Hill) – The Senate on Tuesday passed legislation expanding care for veterans who suffer from illnesses because of exposure to toxins during their military service, ending a standoff after Republicans blocked the bill last week.
The Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act passed with a vote of voted 86-11 and aims to expand benefits from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to 3.5 million veterans.
The bill now heads to President Biden’s desk and he is expected to sign it.
“To be honest, this is overwhelming,” said AMVETS National Executive Director Joe Chenelly. “This legislation, which is now on the way to the president’s desk, and will be signed, is the biggest legislation for veterans since World War II — since the original G.I. Bill. This takes care of so many veterans, about 3.5 million veterans who’ve been suffering from various cancers and respiratory illnesses because of their exposure while serving in our military.”
Tuesday’s vote comes after Senate Republicans unexpectedly blocked the bill during a procedural vote last week. The upper chamber on Wednesday voted 55-42 in favor of the bill, failing to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a filibuster. Twenty-five Republicans who initially voted to advance the bill in June changed their votes.
The upper chamber previously passed the bill in June by a vote of 84-14, and the House passed the bill in July on a bipartisan 342-88 vote. The measure had to go back to the Senate, as the House version included changes.
Republicans have argued that the bill would create a “budgetary gimmick” by moving $400 billion spent by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to mandatory spending, where it wouldn’t be subject to annual appropriations like discretionary spending would.
Earlier on Tuesday, GOP Senators reached a deal for votes on three amendments, with 60 votes needing to pass the measures, followed by a vote on final passage of the bill.
Veterans’ groups have been camping outside the Capitol since last Thursday in a bid to pressure the Senate to pass the bill. Those same veterans, joined by comedian Jon Stewart, sat in the Senate Gallery to observe the vote.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) thanked the advocates for their efforts, saying they could “go home knowing the good and great things you’ve done for America.”
In addition to expanding VA eligibility for toxic exposed-veterans, the legislation also adds 23 burn pit and toxic-exposure-related connections to the agency’s list of presumptive service connections.
The bill also expands presumptions related to exposures to Vietnam War-era Agent Orange to veterans who served in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Guam.