Tester praises passage of veterans toxic exposure bill
Last updated 8/3/2022 at 7:43pm
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., Wednesday praised senators passing a bill providing health care to military veterans exposed to toxic substances, a bipartisan passage coming after Republicans stopped the bill Wednesday of last week.
“This is an important call, because we’ve got great news for our veterans and their families, for this nation,” Tester said. “Yesterday, the Senate made history by finally passing the Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise To Address Comprehensive Toxins Act, otherwise known as the PACT Act.”
Tester said the purpose of the bill is to deliver generations of toxic-exposed veterans the care and the benefits they’ve earned including more than 66,000 Montana veterans who may have been exposed to toxic exposure during their time in uniform.
The bill has had a wild ride in the past two weeks.
Originally passed by the House, after some senators — and Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough — raised some concerns about the bill, Tester, who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and its ranking member, Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, negotiated changing the bill and sent it back to the Senate June 16, where it passed on a 84-14 vote.
A minor issue found in the bill had to be resolved in the House — it was an issue on revenue, so the change had to happen in the House — where it then was passed again and sent back to the Senate for final passage.
But Wednesday of last week, a number of Republican Senators switched their support and it failed to get the 60 votes needed to send it for a final vote, a process known as cloture.
But Republicans switched their votes again Tuesday, and the bill passed on an 86-11 vote. It now will go to President Joe Biden for his signature.
“This legislation has literally been decades in the making. It’s a bill that our veterans and their families deserve, they’re counting on, and, quite honestly, that they can’t wait for any longer,” Tester said “It recognizes our ability to right the wrongs to our toxic-exposed vets and it recognizes the real cost of war.
“Together, we got this done for the men and women who kept their end of the bargain and I am looking forward to President Biden sign this bill into law, hopefully early next week,” he said.
He added that the VA is wasting no time in getting the process rolling and has a website and phone number set up for veterans to learn about the bill and how they would go about filing a claim once it is signed into law.
“The VA has hit the ground running and they are doing this even before the president has signed the bill,” Tester said.
People can go online to http://va.gov/pact or call 1-800-698-2411 to find out more about the benefits and how to file a claim, Tester said.
He said the vote last week caught him flat-footed. After the bipartisan vote June 16, he expected the bill to pass last week, and he voted early and left the floor to start working on another issue.
He said he found out that Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Penn., had been working on raising opposition to the bill for a couple of weeks. Tester added that he considers Toomey a friend but the issues weren’t accurate, “so we went to work to set the record straight.”
Tester said that included reaching out to Republican senators for help, such as Moran, VA Committee member John Boozman, R-Ark., Sen. Robert Portman, R-Ohio, Sen Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
It culminated in sending a three-page letter to his fellow senators telling what actually was in the PACT Act and and why a lot of the claims about it were unfounded, Tester said.
He also thanked Sen. Steve Daines, who did not vote on the bill June 16 but voted against cloture last week, for changing his vote.
“I want to express my appreciation to Sen. Daines for changing his vote,” Tester said. “I think it was the right thing to do.”
He said reports indicate that some Republicans decided to oppose the bill because, the day the vote was taken, the compromise Inflation Reduction Act negotiated between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., was announced.
Tester said any time someone wants to oppose a bill, or support it, they can find a reason.
“But to make a connection outside this bill totally and say we’re not going to support our veterans because of a bill that, by the way, had just been announced, the language wasn’t even out, folks didn’t even know what was in it, but yet they said, ‘Oh, we’re going to take it out on veterans,’ I think is a mistake, and I think that, over the week … I think they realized that they had made a poor choice.”
He also said that as soon as the vote was taken last week, veterans organizations and individuals went back to work persuading senators, especially those who switched their vote, to support the PACT Act. He said that made a major difference, and it may be one of the most important things about the bill passing.
It shows that democracy works, he said.
“As one veteran told me, ‘This is exactly what we fought for, the ability to have a government that represents us,’” Tester said. “It’s a great day for a lot of reasons, but maybe none more important than the fact that the democracy worked.”