Opinion | Pact Act is worth celebrating despite political brinkmanship

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On Tuesday evening, after the Senate passed a bill to aid veterans exposed to hazardous toxins by 86 votes to 11, brief cheers broke out in the gallery — along with tears of exhaustion and relief. That the Pact Act passed with broad bipartisan support is a testament to the relentless work of veterans, military families and advocacy groups. That it was delayed at the last minute, and used to score political points, is an outrage.

During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military would often dispose of waste by combusting products in open-air “burn pits.” The materials burned included chemicals, plastics, medical waste and other substances that can be harmful when torched. Many veterans who served near these sites now face long-term, sometimes life-threatening conditions. An estimated 3.5 million U.S. veterans — about 1 in 5 — have been exposed to contaminants and hazardous pollutants.

Yet more than 70 percent of disability claims related to burn pits are denied by the Department of Veterans Affairs, because it is difficult to prove a direct link between exposure and individual conditions. The Pact Act reduces that burden of proof, offering presumptive benefits status to 23 illnesses believed to be connected with exposure. It would also extend VA medical care to veterans who served in recent wars for five additional years.

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The bill initially passed the Senate in June with 84 votes and similarly breezed through the House. It was sent back to the Senate for what was expected to be routine approval, after a single line related to taxing was removed for procedural reasons. But — on the same day Democrats announced an ambitious new reconciliation deal — 25 GOP senators reversed course on a procedural vote, blocking the bill from moving forward.

The objections hinged on a technicality: Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) had raised concerns about reclassifying existing toxic-exposure benefits from discretionary spending to mandatory. He argued that this move could free up space in the discretionary budget for legislators to spend on other programs. Officials, including Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, warned that keeping those benefits in the discretionary budget could force the agency to “ration” care, and pointed out that the measure had bipartisan support in June. That did not stop Republican lawmakers from characterizing the bill as an insidious attempt by Democrats to spend hundreds of billions on unrelated causes.

Amid the political brinkmanship, veterans were left reeling. For nearly a week, those who had flown to D.C. to celebrate the act’s passage instead campaigned day and night on the steps of the Capitol. Their work mobilizing support no doubt played a role in persuading Republican senators to vote for the bill once again — but it is shameful such efforts were necessary.

Some who fought to raise the profile of this issue are no longer with us — including retired Staff Sgt. Wesley Black, who died in November from colon cancer. In an interview with comedian and Pact Act advocate Jon Stewart last year, Black said: “It’s too late for me. But it’s not too late for the next veteran who walks down the hall of the VA.”

Service members will now have to jump through fewer hoops to receive the care they have earned. That is a long overdue step forward. If only it had not come at such a cost.

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