- 41 Republican senators voted against a bill that would expand healthcare for veterans exposed to burn pits.
- Democratic lawmakers blasted the GOP senators for blocking the bill's passage.
- "It has an immorality to it," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.
Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked a bipartisan bill that would expand healthcare benefits to veterans exposed to toxins from burn pits — an unexpected move that's sparked outrage from Democrats and activists.
The Senate failed to advance the legislation in a 55-42 vote, falling short of the 60 votes needed as 41 Republicans opposed the bill. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer switched his "yes" vote to "no" to allow him to bring up the legislation again in the future.
The bill, known as the PACT Act, represents the most significant extension of healthcare coverage for veterans in years, protecting an estimated 3.5 million former service members who had been exposed to burn pits in war zones. The legislation is projected to cost nearly $280 billion over a decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Burn pits were commonly used in Afghanistan and Iraq to dispose of waste, exposing military members to toxins that have been connected to several respiratory conditions, illnesses and cancers.
"It's hard to explain. It has an immorality to it — that 80% of Republicans would vote against our veterans," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said during a press conference on Thursday.
Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee who helped lead the bill, blasted his Republican colleagues for voting against it, warning that veterans could die because of the inaction.
"This eleventh-hour act of cowardice will actively harm this country's veterans and their families. Republicans chose today to rob generations of toxic-exposed veterans across this country of the health care and benefits they so desperately need—and make no mistake, more veterans will suffer and die as a result," Tester said in a statement on Wednesday.
Comedian Jon Stewart, an advocate for veterans and 9/11 first-responders, also ripped into Republicans on Capitol Hill on Thursday.
"They haven't met a veteran they won't screw over," Stewart said.
The House passed the bill by a 342-88 vote earlier this month after the Senate initially approved it by an 84-14 vote last month. Yet the Senate took up the bill again on Wednesday after the House version had some tweaks to it.
Unlike the overwhelming bipartisan approval last time around, Senate Republicans on Wednesday voiced concerns with a section of the bill that deals with spending.
GOP Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who voted against the bill, said it includes a "budget gimmick that would allow $400 billion of current law spending to be moved from the discretionary to the mandatory spending category."
"By failing to remove this gimmick, Congress would effectively be using an important veterans care bill to hide a massive, unrelated spending binge," he said in a statement.
The Democratic-led Senate anticipated the bill would advance Wednesday's procedural vote, bringing it toward its final passage and then to President Joe Biden's desk for his signature before Congress leaves for its August recess. Yet now the legislation remains in limbo.
"Senator Toomey decides that he wants to rewrite the bill, change the rules, and tank it," Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York said during a Thursday press conference. "How he convinced 25 of his colleagues to change their votes — I have no idea. What the hell?"
"This is total bullshit," she said.
Here are the 41 Republican senators who opposed the bill:
- John Barrasso of Wyoming
- Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming
- Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee
- Bill Hagerty of Tennessee
- Josh Hawley of Missouri
- Roy Blunt of Missouri
- Mike Braun of Indiana
- Todd Young of Indiana
- Richard Burr of North Carolina
- Thom Tillis of North Carolina
- Bill Cassidy of Louisiana
- John Kennedy of Louisiana
- John Cornyn of Texas
- Ted Cruz of Texas
- Tom Cotton of Arkansas
- Dan Sullivan of Arkansas
- Kevin Cramer of North Dakota
- Steve Daines of Montana
- Joni Ernst of Iowa
- Deb Fischer of Nebraska
- Ben Sasse of Nebraska
- Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi
- Roger Wicker of Mississippi
- Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma
- James Lankford of Oklahoma
- Ron Johnson of Wisconsin
- Mike Lee of Utah
- Mitt Romney of Utah
- Roger Marshall of Kansas
- Mitch McConnell of Kentucky
- Rand Paul of Kentucky
- Rob Portman of Ohio
- Mike Crapo of Idaho
- James Risch of Idaho
- Mike Rounds of South Dakota
- John Thune of South Dakota
- Rick Scott of Florida
- Tim Scott of South Carolina
- Richard Shelby of Alabama
- Tommy Tuberville of Alabama
- Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania