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Veterans in Connecticut await benefits as GOP stalls ‘burn pits’ bill in Senate

Veterans were planning to celebrate the passage this week of a bipartisan bill to expand benefits for those exposed to burn pits and toxins when they served. But a delay prompted by Senate Republicans is indefinitely stalling that access for veterans in Connecticut and across the country.

The Honoring Our PACT Act was expected to clear a procedural hurdle on Wednesday evening and then pass the full Senate in the next few days so that President Joe Biden could sign it into law. But more than two dozen Republicans who initially supported the legislation switched their votes and prevented it from quickly moving forward.

It was a surprising development that was met with a chorus of criticism from Democrats and veterans groups, since it initially had overwhelming support in both chambers of Congress. The Senate voted 84-14 for the bill in June, but after some technical corrections were made, the legislation needed to pass again. The measure removes the burden on veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to prove an illness is related to exposure to toxins.

But this time, the legislation got support from only 55 senators, failing to reach the 60-vote threshold to advance bills and overcome filibusters. In the month since the PACT Act first passed the Senate, 25 Republicans flipped their votes and prevented the bill from moving forward. Republicans said they took issue with the funding and want to make a change to the bill before passing it.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who serves on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said he was “dismayed” to see Republicans block Wednesday’s procedural vote. He said he is talking with his GOP colleagues who switched their votes since June.

“I think there’s broad bipartisan support for providing this care and benefits that veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic poisons need and deserve urgently,” Blumenthal said. “We’ve worked very hard on the veterans committee to move it, and I think the failure to do so would be a colossal tragedy.”

The PACT Act seeks to expand benefits for veterans and service members by establishing a “presumption of service connection” for 23 illnesses that may have developed from their time of service due to burn pit smoke and other toxins. Burn pits were used by the military in Afghanistan and Iraq to dispose of trash and other waste.

According to the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, there are an estimated 3.5 million veterans in the U.S. who have been exposed to toxic burn pits.

The number of veterans from Connecticut who’ve been exposed is unclear, though a registry run through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs gives some indication.

Eligible veterans are able to opt into a registry that allows them to detail any exposures to burn pits and airborne hazards, though the numbers aren’t comprehensive since the online questionnaire is voluntary.

Between June 2014 and September 2021, a total of 260,992 U.S. veterans and service members have completed the questionnaire. In Connecticut, 1,262 have completed it.

As of March 2021, there were 167,521 Connecticut veterans, which is about 6% of the state’s adult population. Of those, 28% have served since 1990, according to the CT Data Collaborative, which used data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey.

Blumenthal, as well as Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th District, worked on parts of the legislation that broadened which veterans are eligible for benefits and compensation, including those who were exposed to the 1966 nuclear accident in Palomares, Spain. The bill would change the law to include the cleanup at the site as a “radiation risk activity.”

There was some speculation that Republicans voted against the bill as a response to an announcement from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., that they secured a deal on major health care and climate change legislation. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., suggested that could be the “less charitable reason” so many Republicans flipped.

But other Democrats dismissed that theory. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who held a news conference on Thursday with veterans and lawmakers, said the issues from Republicans existed before the deal emerged. Blumenthal similarly said he would “hesitate to draw that conclusion” since it is possible Republicans were unaware of it when the vote occurred. Democrats announced their agreement minutes before the vote on the PACT Act opened.

Republicans say they don’t oppose the substance of the bill. After the failed procedural vote on Wednesday, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., again raised concerns over the way billions of dollars can be spent, calling it a “budgetary gimmick.” He argued that the issue could be easily resolved through amending the bill so that the spending can go from mandatory back to discretionary, which means it is subjected to the annual appropriations process.

That didn’t quell rising tensions among veterans who rallied outside the U.S. Capitol on Thursday morning. Dozens of veterans fumed over the ongoing delay of legislation that they’ve been pushing for decades. The bill was named after Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, who was exposed to toxins during his service and died in 2020. His mother-in-law, Susan Zeier, attended the news conference and emotionally recounted the care that Robinson was denied by the VA.

At the news conference with Democratic lawmakers, the veterans pleaded with Congress to complete action on the PACT Act before the month-long August recess or stay in session until it gets done. They were also joined by former Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who has been a longtime advocate for veterans’ legislation.

The immediate next steps are uncertain, especially with the Senate scheduled to leave for recess at the end of next week. Republicans want to include an amendment that will fix how the bill is funded. Any changes to the bill would also require the Senate to send it back to the House for another vote before it could go to Biden’s desk, which would further delay passage.

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, who serves as the ranking member on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said he hopes the bill gets passed “sooner rather than later” but acknowledged his GOP colleagues’ concerns.

“I don’t know what motivated everybody” on how they voted on Wednesday, Moran said. “Sen. Toomey’s position has merit and people see that, as far as the funding of the bill. … I will accept whatever solution is necessary to get it done.”

But it’s not immediately clear what Democrats will accept. Gillibrand said she would keep bringing up the bill through a unanimous consent request until the bill passes, though it takes only one senator to object and block it.

Lisa Hagen is CT Public and CT Mirror’s shared Federal Policy Reporter. Based in Washington, D.C., she focuses on the impact of federal policy in Connecticut and covers the state’s congressional delegation. Lisa previously covered national politics and campaigns for U.S. News & World Report, The Hill and National Journal’s Hotline.

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