August 16, 2022

COLUMN: Taking it out on veterans

For more than a dozen years, veteran groups and their advocates have worked to get Congress to fund health care for veterans suffering from exposure to burn pits while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. The PACT Act (Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics), would provide $400 billion in medical aid for them.

Just over a month ago, the bill passed in both houses of Congress with wide bipartisan support. Congress was finally recognizing veterans of the Middle East wars who had returned home with a horrific threat of future health problems hiding in their bodies. As the years after their deployment went by, many of them began to suffer with cancer, lung problems, brain tumors, and a host of other health issues caused by toxic fumes rising out of the burn pits.

After the Senate passed the bill in June - 84 to 14, one little hiccup in the language was identified that required the bill to go back to the House to correct. It was done quickly and returned to the Senate where it was expected to pass again, then sent to the President for his signature.

Last Thursday, 30 Republican Senators who had initially voted for the much-needed aid, reversed themselves and voted down the same bill.

The PACT Act would be huge for veterans who have suffered grievous health problems. Many of them were deployed multiple times, exposed over and over to poisonous toxins being released into the atmosphere as military waste and trash were burned in pits.

Republicans now blocking the bill say the bill’s funding stream was changed, but Democrats insist nothing has changed in the bill whatsoever. Activist/comedian Jon Stewart who has worked for years advocating for veterans and first responders, was outraged. He exploded on camera tearing into Republicans for changing their vote. The target of his wrath in particular was Sen. Pat Toomey who engineered the reversal, and Sen. Ted Cruz who was caught on video fist bumping his colleagues in celebration of killing the bill.

Now the bill is in limbo and the real reason for changing their vote is clear. Republicans are in a snit because the Democrats have reached an agreement to get a major bill called the Inflation Reduction Plan passed through reconciliation.

Senate Republicans originally went along with the PACT ACT because they believed Democrats can’t pass anything of significance due to Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s opposition. They’ve refused to consider any legislation that might help solve the nation’s major problems. They say it’s because of high inflation.

In the politics of today, it’s really more about opposing anything the other party is for. It’s more about winning elections, than legislating.

Manchin, though, won’t consider much of anything because of inflation. It turns out, however, he was negotiating with Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer all along. They have now agreed on a package to fight climate change, lower prescription drugs and pay for it with a 15 percent tax on corporations. This bill will only need 50 votes in the Senate, with a tie-breaker vote by the Vice President, because it’s a budget reconciliation bill.

Needless to say, Republicans were besides themselves when they realized they’d been out maneuvered, and they took out their anger at Democrats on the veterans by killing their PACT bill.

Iowa Senator Joni Ernst is one of them. Ernst, a veteran herself, constantly reminds us of her military service, and has been very public in her advocacy for veterans. So why would she reverse her vote on this bill for veterans’ medical care?

Pure politics is why. Ernst, who isn’t up for reelection this fall, is being a good soldier for the party. She wants to stay relevant in the Senate’s Republican hierarchy, and in good graces with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Plus, she knows these 30 senators will reverse their vote again when they’re done playing politics.

Ernst also knows her supporters will forget about her vote against veterans by the time she’s up for reelection again.

Sen. Chuck Grassley on the other hand is running for reelection this fall. He voted for the bill on June 16, and again last week. Usually Grassley toes the party line, and hardly ever votes differently than McConnell.

This time he’s avoiding party politics with an eye to November.