Senate Republicans are looking for a way to quietly end an impasse over legislation to help veterans suffering from toxic exposures that have turned serious and put them on the defensive at a critical time.
Activists representing veterans are outraged after GOP lawmakers blocked a $278 billion bill aimed at helping veterans suffering from health ailments due to their exposure to toxins. They have been holding a sit-in protest on the steps of the Capitol since Thursday to draw attention to the Republican opposition.
The legislation first passed the Senate in June with a lopsided vote of 84-14, with Republican senators struggling to explain why they are now holding up the same bill on the Senate floor.
Jon Stewart, the former host of the “Daily Show” who has been active for years as an activist for veterans and first responder groups, has relentlessly lambasted the GOP over its position, drawing media attention to the issue.
Stewart took delight in pillorying conservative Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in a recent video in which he answered Cruz’s objections to the bill point by point. He identified Cruz’s arguments as “inaccurate, not true, bullshit” and ended the video with footage of Cruz punching a colleague when the legislation failed on the floor last Thursday.
Republicans admit that three months before a crucial election they don’t look like a good quarterback and are taking most of the blame for the stalled bill.
Asked if Republicans are getting the blame, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a veteran opponent, replied: “Yes, and it’s unfair.”
Now Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), are predicting the bill will go away this week, even if they can’t amend it, signaling they are ready to move on from the politically damaging fight.
GOP senators insist they support the bill’s substance, but oppose what they say is an accounting gimmick that will add to future budget deficits.
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), whose home state has one of the highest numbers of veterans per 100,000 residents, said the bipartisan vote to pass it last month showed strong Republican support for the bill. June.
“I want to pass the PACT Act,” Daines said, referring to the Honor Our Agreement Act.
He said he and other Republicans agreed to support Sen. Pat Toomey’s (R-Pa.) challenge to the bill because “Sen. Toomey raised a legitimate question about how the funding works.”
Toomey, a leading Republican voice on fiscal issues, says the bill designates the $400 billion to be spent by the Department of Veterans Affairs over the next decade to help veterans exposed to toxins as mandatory spending. Traditionally, this spending is classified as discretionary spending, meaning it must fit under annual discretionary spending limits.
Toomey, who is not up for re-election this year because he is retiring from the Senate, argues that a shift to the mandatory side of the ledger will give Congress flexibility to fit other spending programs under the annual budget limits.
“Here’s the problem with this bill, here’s the budgetary gimmick, here’s what’s terrible,” Toomey said on the floor recently. “It allows that expenditure to be transferred from the discretionary category to the compulsory category of expenditure.
“By moving this big category of spending, this $400 billion, out of the discretionary category and putting it in a mandatory position, you create this big hole under the program. [budget] cap,” he said. “Guess what happens with that big hole? It is filled with spending on who knows what.”
The problem for Senate Republicans, however, is that it is not easy to explain to the American public why this is a problem.
It is complicated by the fact that 34 Republicans voted on the bill six weeks ago, although that version of the bill also designated the new veterans funding as mandatory spending.
Stewart said in the video responding to Cruz and other Senate GOP critics: “There was no budget gimmick and it was always mandatory and when they voted in the Senate on June 16, they actually got 84 votes.”
Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough warned in a CNN interview over the weekend that Toomey’s amendment could lead to “caregiving for vets” because it would result in a “year-over-year failure” of what his department can spend to help veterans who are suffering. from exposure to burn pits.
Republicans have also come under fire from Democrats for their motivation to block the bill.
Many Democrats consider it retaliation for a separate deal worked out last week by Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (DN.Y.) and Senator Joe Manchin (DW.Va.). That budget reconciliation package is a priority for Democrats and is being moved under special budget rules that bar GOP filibusters.
After 25 Republicans who voted “yes” for the veterans bill voted “no” on a measure to pass it last week, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) accused them of “having our service members hostage for the sake of. politics.”
Sent by Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn).
“Republicans are furious that Democrats are about to pass climate change legislation and have decided to take their anger out on vulnerable soldiers,” he told Vox.com.
Archeology Chances Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who presided over the groundbreaking debate, called it “a bad decision by Republicans.”
Democratic aides say Schumer offered Toomey a vote on an amendment related to the mandatory spending designation six weeks ago, but 34 Republicans still voted for the bill even though that amendment vote never happened.
In other words, not even many of Toomey’s GOP colleagues were willing to block the popular bill amid a heated debate over mandatory and discretionary spending earlier this summer. That changed when the Democrats announced a decisive deal on climate and taxes.
But now Republicans are forced to play defense and offer convoluted explanations for why they are holding up the veterans bill.
They would rather go on the offensive and attack the Democrats for raising taxes and fueling inflation with the climate and tax bill they plan to pass later this week.
Republicans endorsed Toomey last week but are poised to end the resignation soon.
“Some of our members are like, ‘Toomey has been talking about this for several weeks in our conference meetings, let’s try to fix this.’ He has a legitimate issue but it’s clear that at some point this is going to be successful and it’s going to be huge,” said Senate Republican Senator John Thune (SD).