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How a bipartisan bill to help sick veterans became the casualty of partisan wars

A bill to help sick veterans originally passed through Congress by a landslide. What changed in the second round of votes?

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Entertainer and activist Jon Stewart speaks at a press conference on the PACT Act to benefit burn pit victims.

Entertainer and activist Jon Stewart speaks at a press conference on the PACT Act to benefit burn pit victims on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, March 29, 2022, in Washington.

Mariam Zuhaib, Associated Press

Support for veterans is one of the few remaining areas where Democrats and Republicans can still find common ground. So when a bill that offered medical care to veterans who had been exposed to toxins during their service came up for consideration in the Senate, few expected it to fail. But on July 27, the bill narrowly missed the two-thirds majority required for it to pass.

Over the past few days, Republican and Democrats in the Senate have bickered and blamed each other for the turn of events. Even Jon Stewart, a former talk show host known for advocating for the rights of veterans and first responders, weighed in, calling the decision cruel and trading barbs with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas on Twitter. 

What happened?

Let’s make a PACT

The PACT Act — short for “Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022” — was created with the intention of providing health care to veterans who were exposed to toxic chemicals during their service in the military. On June 16, the bill passed by a landslide vote of 84-14, with two senators not voting.

A second vote, however, was called after slight changes were made to the bill’s text. Upon second revision, a host of Republicans changed their minds. Summarizing their reason for doing so, Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., stated that the bill included “a budget gimmick that would allow $400 billion of current law spending to be moved from the discretionary to the mandatory spending category.”

Mandatory spending is set by existing law and can go into effect immediately. This is how large entitlement programs, such as Social Security, are funded. On the other hand, discretionary spending is decided through annual appropriation acts and typically funds federal agencies.


An Afghan National Army pickup truck passes parked U.S. armored military vehicles as smoke rises from a fire in a trash burn pit at Forward Operating Base Caferetta Nawzad, Helmand province south of Kabul, Afghanistan on April 28, 2011. The Senate was expected to approve on Thursday a large expansion of health care and disability benefits for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan in response to concerns about their exposure to toxic burn pits.

Simon Klingert, Associated Press

He said, he said

Democrats see it differently. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., accused Toomey and other Republicans — many of whom were originally in support of the bill — of rejecting it out of spite because of the Inflation Reduction Act. 

“Republicans are mad that Democrats are on the verge of passing climate change legislation and have decided to take out their anger on vulnerable veterans,” Murphy said in a statement.

“That’s so absurd and dishonest for anyone to suggest that it has anything to do with BBB,” Toomey said, referring to Build Back Better, which was the original name of the Inflation Reduction Act. 

Toomey says he proposed an amendment that would fund the bill through the annual appropriations process instead of being mandatory spending. But it is unclear whether the Senate will agree to hold another vote.

The real losers

Either way, the optics are not flattering for Republicans in the Senate. Moments after the bill failed, Sens. Cruz and Steve Daines, R-Mont., were seen fist-bumping on the chamber floor.

Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonprofit, expected the bill to pass with a procedural vote.

“We’ve seen partisanship and games within Congress for years,” Butler said, per NBC News. “But what is shocking is that so many senators would literally be willing to play with veterans’ lives so openly like this.”

“They’re manufacturing reasons to vote against legislation that they literally voted for just last month,” he added. “And so it’s really a new level of low.”