A bill expanding healthcare coverage for veterans sickened by gases from military toxic burn pits passed the U.S. Senate on Tuesday night after unexpectedly getting held up by opposition from Republicans last week.
The U.S. military used burn pits to dispose of waste on foreign bases until the mid-2010s. Fumes from burning everything from rubber, chemical waste, ammunitions and human feces have caused rare cancers and respiratory illnesses in veterans.
The bill initially passed the 100-member Senate with the support of 34 Republicans and all 50 Democrats, but got held up by a technical error the House swiftly corrected.
The Senate's final approval last week was expected to be a routine vote, but after Democrats announced a deal within their caucus on an unrelated climate and tax bill that would not require bipartisan support, a group of Republican senators abruptly changed their positions and voted against the corrected bill.
Many saw the Republican senators' move, which took place just hours after the Democrats' announcement, as retribution for continuing negotiations on the climate and tax bill that most in Congress thought were dead.
On Tuesday, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer said he had reached a deal with Republican Senator Pat Toomey to hold a vote on an amendment that would change how money was allocated within the burn pits bill, clearing the way for a final vote on passage on Tuesday evening.
Toomey's amendment was defeated before the Senate approved the legislation by a vote of 86-11.
In response, President Joe Biden had this to say: "While we can never fully repay the enormous debt we owe to those who have worn the uniform, today, the United States Congress took important action to meet this sacred obligation. The bipartisan Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act of 2022 is the biggest expansion of benefits for service-connected health issues in 30 years and the largest single bill ever to comprehensively address exposure to burn pits."
Veterans who have pushed for the bill have camped on the Capitol steps since Thursday evening when the bill last came to the floor. Biden called the veterans on Saturday and said he stood in solidarity with them, according to Rosie Torres, a veterans' advocate.
Torres believes the Republican senators who changed their vote treated veterans like "political pawns."
"It shouldn't be about politics," Torres said. "People are dying."
Veterans and their advocates - including comedian Jon Stewart, an outspoken supporter of the bill - packed the galleries of the Senate chamber to watch the final vote on Tuesday night.
The bill will now move to Biden's desk for final signing into law.
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