A soldier in the Afghan National Army walks past a burn pit at a command outpost handed over to the ANA from the United States Army on March 22, 2013, in Kandahar Province, Zhari District, Afghanistan. | Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate came up short Wednesday in trying to move ahead on legislation that would provide health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits overseas.
The bill, from Montana Democratic Sen. John Tester and Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran, has been bogged down for nearly two months as U.S. lawmakers debated whether to bring amendments to the floor and how exactly to fix a minor part of the bill that stalled the process in the House.
On Wednesday, the Senate voted 55-42 to advance the bill toward final passage, but that did not meet a 60-vote threshold and the legislation stalled, though supporters could call for another vote.
Some members had objected because the federal government would pay for the bill’s $278.5 billion cost through mandatory rather than discretionary spending.
Mandatory spending includes entitlement programs like Social Security, and is set in law and in effect indefinitely. Under discretionary spending, members of Congress would control the funding each year through the appropriations process.
Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said there had been an agreement between Tester and Moran for two amendment votes, but Democratic leaders have not scheduled those votes. Cornyn said the hope is for further negotiations to “eliminate some of the mandatory spending in the bill and the bill can pass.”
Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey said in a brief interview after the vote that he wanted to address a “budget gimmick” in the bill that he believes would lead to an increase in spending unrelated to providing health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits.
Toomey said he had “no quarrel with” the legislation creating $278.5 billion in new spending during the next decade that would be classified as “mandatory.”
Toomey’s opposition to the bill comes from a separate section of the package that “would authorize $400 billion over the next 10 years of existing spending … to be switched from discretionary to mandatory.”
“And the reason for that, is to create a $40 billion annual hole in discretionary spending under the cap,” Toomey said. “And allow all kinds of spending on who knows what.”
Tester on the floor rebuked Toomey for holding up the legislation, saying veterans would die while waiting for Congress to send the legislation to Biden for his signature.
“It impacts three-and-a-half million veterans in this country,” Tester said. “By the way, a few more will die before we get this bill passed.”
Tester argued that Toomey’s objection was about the retiring Pennsylvania senator’s lack of trust in his colleagues.
Tester said that going along with Toomey’s proposed changes to the bill would tie the hands of the Appropriations Committee in the future.
“This is about not even trusting the people in this body. We have an Appropriations Committee and we vote on appropriations bills,” Tester said, clearly furious. “Let the process work. Let’s not tie the hands of appropriators. Let’s make sure we let the process work. That’s what we’ve always done.”
In the works for a decade
Tester said before the procedural vote that the legislation has been in the works for well over a decade and that he as chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and Moran as ranking member have been working on it for nearly two years.
“It’s a bill that allows us, the American people, to live up to the promises we make our active duty military when they come home with an injury, in this case toxic exposure,” Tester said.
“In World War I it was mustard gas. Radiation in World War II. Of course, Agent Orange in the Vietnam War,” Tester said. “We’ve had toxic exposure over and over and over again. In the Middle East it’s burn pits.”
Those open-air pits would be filled with various types of trash, including medical waste, rubber, plastics and other hazardous materials. They would then be lit on fire, sometimes with the assistance of jet fuel.
The burn pits were often close to where soldiers lived and worked while deployed overseas, predominantly in Afghanistan and Iraq.
A Pentagon spokesperson said Wednesday there are three active burn pits within U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility — which covers 21 Middle Eastern nations, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Egypt — and one active burn pit within the area covered by U.S. Africa Command.
“All of them are being operated by host nation civilians or host nation military partners and none by U.S. forces,” the spokesperson said. “Both AFRICOM and CENTCOM are working with their military counterparts to minimize risk to personnel from burn pit operation.”
Those figures are slightly different from mid-June, when a Department of Defense spokesperson said U.S. Central Command had four active burn pits within its command area while U.S. Africa Command had two active burn pits within its area of operation.
3.5 million veterans
The legislation would expand eligibility for VA health care and benefits to 3.5 million veterans who were exposed to burn pits since 9/11.
It would add 23 illnesses to the list of diagnoses the VA presumes are connected to military service, ending the need for veterans with those conditions to try to prove to the federal government it’s the result of time overseas.
The measure would also expand health care and benefits for veterans exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical the U.S. military used during the Vietnam War. American Samoa, Cambodia, Guam, Johnston Atoll, Laos and Thailand would all be added to the list of locations where veterans are presumed to have been exposed to the chemical.
The package is expected to cost about $278.5 billion over the next decade, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Tester said Wednesday that is part of the cost of war.
“If we’re not willing to take care of our men and women when they come back from battles that we send them off to, then maybe we ought to rethink whether we’re going to send them in the first place,” Tester said.
The Senate originally approved the bill 84-14 on June 16, sending the legislation to the House, where leaders hoped to quickly clear the package for President Joe Biden’s signature.
The bill, however, hit a bump as Veterans’ Affairs Committee leaders debated what to do with a section that was intended to increase health care providers in rural or very rural areas.
The section, which is no longer in the measure, would have allowed the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to buy doctors or other designated health care providers out of contracts if they agreed to work for at least four years in those rural areas.
The measure opted to exempt that buy out money from being taxable for the health care providers, triggering an objection from the House Ways and Means Committee, which cited a blue slip issue since tax provisions technically cannot start in the Senate.
The House later passed the measure on July 13 on a 342-88 vote, sending the bill back to their Senate colleagues after making a minor fix.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said earlier this week he hoped the chamber could send the bill to Biden before the end of the week.
“Our nation’s veterans have waited long enough to get the benefits they need to treat complications from toxic exposure in the line of duty,” Schumer said Monday. “So we have every reason in the world to get this bill done with the same bipartisan support as the first time around.”
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