Sen. Pat Toomey holds up final approval of burn pit veterans aid package, citing spending concerns

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Despite a historic Senate vote in June for approval of a new bill that would provide millions of veterans treatment for illnesses associated with their exposure to burn pits, one senator is holding up the final signing into law by President Biden — flagging concerns over the spending involved.

The Senate voted 84-14 last month in favor of the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022. The bill, which was passed with a majority vote in both the House and Senate, represents the most comprehensive veteran health care reform to date, establishing a presumptive service connection for veterans made gravely ill after inhaling toxic fumes that hung over their bases overseas, including in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The bill went back to the House, which recently passed a revised version, but further passage has been delayed after Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., spoke out against the bill saying an additional amendment on provisional spending needed to be added.

“Senator Toomey has blocked it. And now he wants to introduce amendments completely rewriting the way that it’s paid for out of some false and very convenient fiscal concern that he never had for the defense budget or for the wars that created these toxic exposure difficulties in the first place,” comedian and activist Jon Stewart said in an interview with Fox News.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., on Capitol Hill in December 2020.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., on Capitol Hill in December 2020. (Sarah Silbiger/The Washington Post via AP, Pool, File)

“And once again, it’s the same old story,” he added. “Always money for war. Always want to balance the budget on the backs of sick veterans. And now it’s even more despicable, because having passed the act, giving great hope to the families of wounded veterans and their caregivers that are suffering from this without the health care and benefits that they’ve earned, it’s being held up once more.”

On June 23, when the Senate deliberated the PACT Act after a cloture vote, Toomey expressed his concerns with the language of the bill. He argued that there already was $400 billion allocated in the discretionary spending budget, and that moving it to the mandatory spending budget would be nothing more than a “gimmick” to avoid spending caps. The senator said his amendment to keep the budget under discretionary spending would prevent the potential for “huge excessive spending” in other categories.

“Senator Toomey is asking for a fix to prevent the PACT Act from being used to increase spending completely unrelated to veterans,” a spokeswoman for the senator said in a statement provided to Fox News. “As currently written, the PACT Act includes a budget gimmick that will allow Democrats to increase spending totally unrelated to veterans by $400 billion over the next 10 years. Sen. Toomey’s technical fix would prevent this unrelated spending without changing any of the underlying policy in the bill.”

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Officials from Sen. Toomey’s office also cited a provision they said was added to the PACT Act right before the debate of the bill on the Senate floor, which stated that any discretionary budget funds related to burn pits could become classified as mandatory spending. They told Fox News his amendment focused only on preventing current discretionary spending — occurring regardless of the PACT Act — from being shifted over to the mandatory spending budget. Any new discretionary funding related to toxic burn pit exposure would still be able to be transferred to the mandatory budget.

Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., said Toomey’s move was doing nothing but delay the need of assistance for millions of sick service members.

Jon Stewart, center, recently met with Sen. Kirsten Gillbrand, center, along with advocates John Feal and Rosie Torres, left, a founder of Burn Pits 360.

Jon Stewart, center, recently met with Sen. Kirsten Gillbrand, center, along with advocates John Feal and Rosie Torres, left, a founder of Burn Pits 360. (Rosie Torres)

“Veterans who are suffering from their exposure to burn pits and other toxins do not have time for partisan obstructionism—their lives are literally on the line,” Ruiz told Fox News. “It’s a disgrace that one senator is playing games with the health care and benefits that veterans have earned, deserve, and desperately need. The Senate passed this bill with bipartisan support just a month ago, and there is no reason why this should not be voted on as soon as possible.”

Ruiz, who helped author the bill, recently requested that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., carry forward with the final vote.

“The U.S. House of Representatives has now passed the Honoring our PACT Act three times in a bipartisan manner, including most recently to fix a Senate Technical Error,” read a July 19 letter from Ruiz to Schumer obtained by Fox News. “There is no reason that this bill, which was also passed the Senate just a month ago, should not be voted on as soon as possible.”

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“Our Veterans have waited long enough,” the letter continued. “I respectfully call on you to bring the Honoring Our PACT Act to the Senate floor now.”

While it appears that the amendment is being considered, it would not necessarily prevent the Senate from giving the final vote of approval and sending it to Biden’s desk to sign into law.

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Sources close to the situation told Fox News that Schumer, a major proponent of the bill, has been pushing for a vote as soon as possible before the voting period ends this month.

U.S. Army soldiers watching a burn pit at Forward Operating Base Azzizulah in Maiwand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, Feb. 4, 2013.

U.S. Army soldiers watching a burn pit at Forward Operating Base Azzizulah in Maiwand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, Feb. 4, 2013. (REUTERS/Andrew Burton, File)

The Honoring Our PACT Act’s passage marked a culmination of a decades-long fight by veterans and their families for the U.S. government to provide proper treatment for the severe illnesses any service members developed after they returned home from battle.

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Many service members said the pits were a crude method of incineration in which every piece of waste was burned, including plastics, batteries, appliances, medicine, dead animals and even human waste. The items were often set ablaze using jet fuel as the accelerant.

Crews used the pits to burn over 1,000 different chemical compounds day and night. Most service members breathed in toxic fumes with no protection.

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With the current law in place, veterans who have an illness or disability due to burn pit exposure must, in most cases, establish a direct service connection to be eligible for Department of Veterans Affairs benefits — a task that has often been proven difficult to achieve.

Toomey “is stalling a process for those sick and dying. That’s the bottom line,” said Rosie Torres, a lobbyist and founder of advocacy group Burn Pits 360. “It’s not just any bill. It’s a bill that helps those that are waiting and the widows that are waiting for survivor benefits, none of them can move forward. And every day, every minute that goes by, someone’s dying.”

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