Republicans say the funding could be used for things ‘completely unrelated’ to veterans’ health
A bill designed to provide extra benefits to veterans affected by exposure to burn pits overseas is facing opposition by Senate Republicans over Democrats’ efforts to include $400 billion in spending that Republicans say is unrelated to helping veterans.
The bill, dubbed the “Honoring Our PACT Act,” is overwhelmingly supported by members on both sides of the aisle inasmuch as it seeks to provide new benefits and care options for veterans who have suffered long-term damage from exposure to burn pits in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
However, the bill would also authorize $400 billion in new spending that Republican critics say could be used for purposes unrelated to that key focus, which has drawn GOP opposition to the bill, despite the party’s support for the core of the bill.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who joined his GOP colleagues last week in blocking the bill from advancing, explained Republicans’ concerns in a statement released following the vote.
“The PACT Act as written includes a budget gimmick that would allow $400 billion of current law spending to be moved from the discretionary to the mandatory spending category,” Toomey explained. “This provision is completely unnecessary to achieve the PACT Act’s stated goal of expanding health care and other benefits for veterans.”
“It would enable an additional $400 billion in future discretionary spending completely unrelated to veterans,” he added. “By failing to remove this gimmick, Congress would effectively be using an important veterans care bill to hide a massive, unrelated spending binge.”
Following the failed vote, some Democrats and liberals have used the opportunity to suggest that Republicans do not care about veterans.
Speaking about the vote, comedian and activist Jon Stewart said on CNN that Republicans’ opposition to the bill was “casual cruelty.” Stewart dismissed Republicans’ concerns, saying that their opposition to the $400 billion in extraneous spending is “nonsensical,” and serves only as “a reason to delay and deny.”
Republicans Demand Amendments to Pass the Bill
During a Sunday appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Toomey, who has consistently opposed the bill in its current form, said that continued holdups to the bill were due to Democrats’ unwillingness to compromise, not Republicans’.
To advance the bill past the current stalemate, Toomey has proposed an amendment that would change the $400 billion appropriation from mandatory spending back to discretionary spending.
Republicans, Toomey said on CNN, are not opposed to the substance of the PACT Act.
However, Toomey blasted Democrats for using the issue as a vehicle to push through provisions that could never pass on their own.
“This is the oldest trick in Washington,” Toomey said. “People take a sympathetic group of Americans … craft a bill to address their problems and then sneak in something completely unrelated that they know could never pass on its own and dare Republicans to do anything about it, because they know they’ll unleash their allies in the media, maybe a pseudo-celebrity, to make up false accusations to try to make us just swallow what shouldn’t be there. That’s what’s happening here.”
The problem, from the GOP perspective, is that this tiny shift would make the funds a required expenditure rather than being based on the ongoing needs of the veterans intended to be helped by the bill.
Mentioning his proposed amendment, Toomey explained: “What I’m trying to do is change a government accounting methodology designed to allow our Democratic colleagues to go on an unrelated $400 billion spending spree that has nothing to do with veterans and won’t be in the veterans’ space.”
In early July, the same bill advanced through the Senate easily by an 86–14 vote, but a second procedural vote was needed after a few technical changes were made to the bill’s text.
Asked about that vote, Toomey said that Republicans voted for the bill the first time around on the basis of a promise that they would be able to amend the $400 billion provision in question—a promise which Toomey said Democrats “reneged on.”
Democrats, Toomey added, “could have agreed to [my amendment] a month ago and this would have sailed through.”
“Look, we can resolve this with an amendment vote,” Toomey emphasized. “But some of the Democrats don’t even want to have an amendment vote.”
VA ‘May Have to Ration Care’
Denis McDonough, secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA), appeared on “State of the Union” the same evening, and during his appearance he rejected Toomey’s claims.
The $400 billion in question, McDonough said, is meant to ensure that “all the spending for this program is for the veterans exposed to these toxins.”
McDonough claimed that the mandatory tag is necessary for the money.
“If his estimations are wrong about what we’ll spend in any given year, that means that we may have to ration care for veterans,” McDonough said.
In a tweet after McDonough’s appearance, Toomey responded to the claim.
“@SecVetAffairs is either misinformed about my proposed amendment or willfully dishonest,” Toomey wrote. “It would not reduce spending on veterans by one penny. It would not force care to be rationed. It would not end any veterans program.”
Amid the ongoing battle over the $400 billion, it remains unclear if Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) will accede to Toomey’s and other Republicans’ demands for an amendment vote or if Democrats will double down on accusing the GOP of being anti-veteran.