Republican senators have been accused of “sentencing veterans to death” by blocking passage of a key bill that would finally give American service members access to the health care they need when they fall ill and die from toxic exposure.
Democratic lawmakers, veterans and advocates including TV host Jon Stewart spoke at a highly emotional press conference Thursday morning after a bill expected to become law over the weekend was suddenly derailed by Republicans.
“This is total bulls***,” shouted Senator Kristen Gillibrand. “They just sentenced the soldiers to death.”
On Wednesday, SFC Heath Robinson Respect for our PACT Act collapsed in the US Senate after dozens of Republicans who had previously supported the bill unexpectedly changed their minds and decided to vote against it.
The bill received just 55 of the 60 votes needed to pass a cloture motion on Wednesday, as eight Republicans voted to move it forward.
A staggering 25 of those who voted against it voted to pass the same bill a month ago.
On June 16, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to pass the bill, with senators voting 84 to 14 in favor of expanding health care access to thousands of veterans who served in the United States overseas.
But now, with the Senate scheduled to go on a month-long recess on Aug. 5, thousands of veterans desperate for health and disability benefits are now high and dry for even longer.
Much of the blame for scuttling the bill’s passage was placed on Senator Pat Toomey – who, prior to the vote – spoke out against the bill and said he wanted to include an amendment on temporary spending.
Speaking at a press conference Thursday, Rosie Torres — co-founder of BurnPits360 and wife of veteran LeRoy Torres, who has a rare terminal condition caused by burn pits — told the senator that more veterans will die because of him.
“Senator Toomey, how many soldiers are going to die because of you?” she asked.
“Please explain to us: what is the level of acceptable deaths?”
Ms Torres branded the Republican senators “25 villains” because the senior community is “demanding answers, we deserve justice”, she said.
Mr Stewart, who has been pushing the government to pass the bill, slammed the “brutal cruelty” of GOP lawmakers who voted no and warned that delaying the passage of the PACT Act would cost lives.
When sick and dying veterans don’t have time to wait, he attacks senators who plan to retire next week.
“They’re not on Senate time. They’re on human time. They’re on cancer time,” he said.
“Don’t you have families? Don’t you have people deciding how to live their last moments?” asked the lawmakers.
Mr Stewart singled out Senators Toomey, Rick Scott and Mitch McConnell as he pointed out the hypocrisy of lawmakers who say they support veterans but voted against the PACT Act.
Florida Republicans read a specific tweet by Mr. Scott on Wednesday, where he showed photos of Florida Republicans serving men and women — the same day he voted against the bill.
“I am honored to join @the_uso Today and make security packages for our brave military members in gratitude for their sacrifice and service to our nation,” read the tweet.
Mr Stewart scoffed at the tweet, saying “there’s a nice picture”.
“Did you get the package? I think it has some M&Ms and some cookies,” he joked.
He impersonated Mr McConnell’s voice as he revealed he told players “we’ll get it done” a month ago.
“Mitch McConnell flipped yesterday,” he said, referring to the senator’s sudden decision to vote for the bill later.
Mr Toomey, meanwhile, says he “will not sit down” with the veterans he is attacking, while he has the support of several veterans’ groups.
“Pat Toomey says he has senior teams behind him,” he said.
“I call the Bulls*** – these are the senior teams,” he said, gesturing at several players and senior team representatives.
“They’re all here. They won’t stand behind you, in fact you won’t let them stand in front of you,” he said, branding Mr Twomey a “coward”.
After more than a decade of lobbying for 9/11 responders — first to the U.S. government and then to veterans — the TV host said she was used to “hypocrisy” and “lies.”
“The Senate is where accountability goes to die,” he said.
“They’ll never lose their jobs. They’ll never lose their healthcare.
He added: “This is an embarrassment to the Senate, to the country, to the founders and to those they kindly acknowledge. If it’s America first, it’s America!
In March, the bill was renamed in honor of Ohio National Guard Sergeant Heath Robinson, who died in May 2020 of a rare cancer caused by inhaling toxic fumes from burn pits while serving in Iraq. He is 39 years old.
His mother-in-law Susan Zeier choked back tears as she wore her late son-in-law’s military jacket and labeled the senators who voted against it “reprehensible”.
A month earlier, after the Senate passed the bill, Heath symbolically took off his jacket, saying he didn’t need to “carry it on his shoulders.”
The June 16 vote was celebrated by veterans, their families and advocates, who have been fighting for years to get the US government to take the issue of burn pits seriously – knowing it would be weeks before the bill became law.
The bill was sent back to the House for a final vote, where it passed on July 14 with a vote of 342-88.
Because of a minor technical amendment by the House, the Senate had to vote on the legislation again before it was sent to President Joe Biden’s desk for signature.
But — between one month and the next — dozens of Republican senators decided to change their vote, deciding they no longer supported expanding health and disability access for U.S. service members.
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman John Tester slammed the move on the Senate floor Wednesday night.
“This eleventh-hour act of cowardice seriously harms this nation’s soldiers and their families,” he said.
“Republicans chose today to rob generations of toxic exposures across this country of the health care and benefits they so desperately need.
“Make no mistake, more soldiers will suffer and die as a result.”
Under the law, 23 cancers, respiratory diseases and other conditions will now be linked to veterans’ exposure to burn pits while deployed overseas.
This means that service men and women who return home after serving their country and develop one of these conditions will be given automatic access to health and disability benefits.
It will fund federal research into the impact of burn pits on the nation’s troops.
According to the Veterans Affairs (VA), an estimated 3.5 million service members and veterans were exposed to burn pits and airborne toxins while serving the United States overseas.
During America’s post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, large open pits were used on US military bases to burn garbage including food packaging, human waste and military equipment.
Thousands of American service members have returned home from deployments and developed health conditions including rare cancers, lung conditions, respiratory diseases and toxic brain injuries. Inhaling toxic fumes from pits.
But until now, the burden of proof has always been on veterans to prove that their condition was directly caused by this toxic exposure.
In September 2020, a senior VA official testified before Congress that nearly 80 percent of disability claims citing burn pits between 2007 and 2020 were denied.
Over the past six months, the president has made tackling the issue of burn pits a high priority, and has repeatedly urged lawmakers in the House and Senate to pass legislation to support veterans.
During his State of the Union address in March, he said he believed his son Beau Biden may have died as a result of poisoning from burn pits when he was deployed to Iraq.