WASHINGTON — In the face of criticism, Pennsylvania’s Republican Sen. Pat Toomey is continuing to defend his opposition to what he calls a “budget gimmick” in an historic veterans health spending bill that received overwhelming Senate support in June.
Toomey, who was one of 14 Republican “no” votes earlier this summer, is reiterating his argument against shuffling $390 billion in Veterans Affairs spending from the government’s discretionary category to an annual mandatory, automatic spending category — the way in which programs like Social Security are categorized.
The proposal, titled the Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, or PACT Act, would expand eligibility to veterans diagnosed with certain cancers, respiratory diseases and other conditions after serving in various locations like Iraq and Afghanistan, where open burn pits were common, or in Vietnam or the Enewetak Atoll, where service members faced other toxic exposures.
“Let me be clear, Republicans are not opposed to any of the substance of the PACT Act. My honest Democratic colleagues will fully acknowledge my objection, and if I get my way, if I get my change, it will not change by one penny any spending on any veterans program,” Toomey told CNN’s Jake Tapper on the “State of the Union” program Sunday.
After an unrelated, technical change in the U.S. House, the bill returned to the Senate last week and failed to reach the chamber’s 60-vote threshold when an additional 27 Republican senators joined in voting “no.”
The senator received criticism over the past several days from Democrats, who accused the Republicans of being angry over a potential budget reconciliation deal, and notably from comedian Jon Stewart, who accused the party of “empty promises” to members of the armed services.
Pennsylvania’s Democratic Sen. Bob Casey on Monday hosted a press conference that featured three veterans urging the Senate to pass the bill.
“When it comes to burn pits, I don’t think anyone understood what it was when we were actively throwing trash, batteries, electronics, everything that was not of use to the United States serviceman or woman, into a giant fire pit,” said veteran Andy Chomko, a U.S. Army Ranger who served in four combat deployments from 2003 to 2007.
“How many of those elected officials and politicians have sent their children there? And do they have effects from this? … They don’t want to do anything now for the people that went and did the dirty deeds that our government suggested or made us do,” he continued.
A year ago the VA began to process claims for veterans suffering from asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis who served beginning in 1990 and in 2001 in various Middle East, Southwest Asia and African locations. This was based on the presumption that they could have been affected by open burn pits where any number of substances including paint, chemicals, human waste, plastics and munitions were burned.
In April, the agency added nine rare respiratory cancers to the list of illnesses presumed to be caused by air pollution exposure, namely fine particulate matter.
The advocacy organization Disabled American Veterans estimates that 3.5 million service members were exposed to burn pits. The organization does not have an estimate for how many have been affected by disease after the fact.
“There are 14 members of the Senate who didn’t want to vote for [the PACT Act] in the first place. That was being missed in this argument all weekend long. They don’t want this bill to pass because they already voted no,” Casey said during the Monday morning call.
Not so, says Toomey’s office. The senator vows to vote ‘yes’ if the budget amendment goes through.
“It’s wrong to use a veterans bill to hide a $400 billion unrelated slush fund. The Senate could have fixed this weeks ago, and we can still fix it now,” Toomey said in a statement Monday.
The Republican senator made appearances on the Sunday morning politics talk shows to discuss his amendment, as did VA Secretary Denis McDonough. McDonough on CNN criticized Toomey’s amendment, saying that it would limit funding after a decade and “that means we may have to ration care for veterans.”
The senator responded on Twitter, accusing the secretary of being “misinformed about my proposed amendment or willfully dishonest.”
Toomey maintains that Senate leadership “reneged” on a promise to allow amendments earlier this summer and rushed the bill through the chamber on the heels of a Congressional Budget Office score that estimated the bill would cost hundreds of billions of dollars.
The senator told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in June that the VA “already has the authority to ensure veterans receive this care where the evidence has established a connection to their service” and that the PACT Act would allow “unnecessary changes to longstanding budget rules to enable hundreds of billions in additional spending on unrelated purposes.”
The reclassification of $390 billion would be in addition to $277 billion in new spending under the legislation that is not offset by any new revenue, according to an analysis of the Washington-based Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
Shifting the nearly $400 billion from discretionary to “autopilot” leaves Congress with a gap that, in theory, could just be filled with new spending.
“Appropriators are going to suddenly feel like they have a lot more spending room, and they’re likely to spend some of that room, maybe all of it, but I would guess some of it, on new spending that’s not VA health, that’s maybe not even on veterans … at a time when debt and inflation are already at historic highs,” said Marc Goldwein, the committee’s senior policy director.
The Senate could vote on Toomey’s amendment as early as Tuesday.