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Senate passes bill expanding veteran health care with Ernst, Grassley support

Gazette - 8/3/2022

Aug. 3—Facing increasing pressure from Democrats and veterans advocacy organizations, the U.S. Senate passed a bill late Tuesday expanding health care and disability benefits for millions of veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.

The Senate passed the measure, 86-11, with Iowa Republican U.S. Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley voting in favor. Ernst, a combat veteran, had previously objected with some other Republicans to a budget provision in the bill, which briefly blocked its passage.

Democratic President Joe Biden has pushed for the legislation and is expected to sign the bill into law.

Tuesday's vote ended a brief stalemate when the process derailed after some Senate Republicans including Ernst made a late attempt last week to change a budget provision in the bill and blocked it from advancing, infuriating veterans advocacy groups. A key voting bloc in the Nov. midterm elections, the advocacy groups ramped up the political pressure over the last five days on GOP lawmakers to act.

The Honoring Our PACT Act first passed the Senate in June, 84-14, and by a 342-88 vote in the House. But technical corrections sent the measure back to the Senate for another procedural vote July 27. Twenty-five Republicans who supported the previous version of the bill — including Ernst — changed their vote over how the government accounts for spending slated for veterans programs.

The bill is projected to increase federal deficits by about $277 billion over 10 years and does not include offsetting spending cuts or tax increases. When the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office scored the bill, it projected that nearly $400 billion slated to be spent on health services would move from discretionary spending to mandatory spending.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan fiscal watchdog, said a reclassification of the $390 billion from discretionary to mandatory would "both reduce the pressure to keep those costs under control and make it easier for appropriators to spend more elsewhere in the budget without offsets."

Those dynamics, however, also applied to the bill when Senate Republicans had overwhelmingly approved the measure in June.

But more than two dozen Republicans who voted for the bill in June voted this time against advancing the measure, raising questions about why Republicans blocked a do-over to pass the bill.

Ernst blamed Democrats for not allowing the chance to offer amendments "to strengthen" the bill, and sided with Pennsylvania Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, who sought a vote on an amendment he said would not reduce spending on veterans but would limit the ability of Congress to increase spending on unrelated, nondefense programs down the road.

The amendment, which Ernst supported, would have kept the $400 billion in spending in the discretionary budget. Senate Republicans claim doing so will save Americans significant costs in the long run without sacrificing a dollar for veterans.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer struck a deal Tuesday with Republicans to let the Senate vote on the Toomey amendment as well as two others, with 60 votes needed for passage, the same number that was needed to advance the bill itself.

After voting for the Toomey amendment, which failed, Ernst voted with Grassley and others Tuesday to pass the PACT Act.

"Our veterans, who have sacrificed so much and continue to pay the price for their service, deserve the life-saving benefits in this bill," Ernst said in a statement. "The PACT Act works to fulfill our duty to care for those who put on the uniform in the name of protecting our freedom, both past and present."

Grassley has consistently supported the PACT Act and voted in favor of advancing the bill last week.

Veterans who served in the post Sept. 11, 2001, era and were exposed to toxic burn pits will get 10 years — rather than five — of enhanced health care coverage through the Department of Veterans Affairs upon their separation from the military.

The PACT Act also adds 23 illnesses to the VA's list of toxic-exposure-related ailments presumed to be connected to military service, ending the need for veterans with those conditions to prove to the VA their illnesses were linked to their deployments. And it would expand care for veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

"Since 9/11, over 3.5 million veterans have suffered from toxic exposure, and many more have faced other adverse health effects from their selfless service," Grassley said in a statement. "The bipartisan Honoring Our PACT Act is a critical investment in our veterans, who deserve the best care possible. By making much-needed improvements to the VA, including strengthening its workforce and health care facilities, this bill will help ensure veterans who have sacrificed so much to defend freedom, peace and prosperity will be well taken care of.

"We've promised to care for our military men and women who sacrificed for our freedoms. This bill helps to keep that promise."

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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