Voices: Senate Republicans lose control of the narrative on veterans’ bill

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 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

In the past week, Senate Republicans have caught hell from the press, public opinion and from veteran activists, after 25 Republicans reversed their previous vote for the PACT Act. The act would have provided care for US veterans who were exposed to toxic exposure from burn pits.

Veterans have also seen a boost in publicity for their fight thanks to Jon Stewart, former host of The Daily Show, who has been vocally railing against GOP Senators who opposed the legislation. But now, likely sensing that public opinion is not on their side, Republican Senators have a new line of complaint: Democrats started it.

In particular, Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, herself a veteran, blasted Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer for not allowing a vote on amendments. “We were told by Schumer you get one shot at it and this is what pisses me off, and you can quote me on that,” Ernst told reporters on Monday. “Now we have the opportunity because he screwed it up. And it shouldn’t have originated here. It goes against the Constitution, right? Nobody’s talking about it. Schumer screwed it up.”

At issue is an objection from Senator Pat Toomey, a retiring Republican from Pennsylvania, who said in a statement last week that he had a problem with a provision that would allow for $400 billion in the current law to be moved from discretionary (i.e. nonessential) spending to mandatory spending. Mandatory spending is a category that includes entitlements like Social Security and is therefore not set by annual appropriation acts.

“This provision is completely unnecessary to achieve the PACT Act’s stated goal of expanding healthcare and other benefits for veterans,” Toomey said last week. “However, it would enable an additional $400 billion in future discretionary spending completely unrelated to veterans.”

Ernst explained to reporters that she supported the measures and empathizes with veterans. “I support this. I get it,” she said. “But it ticks me off the way Schumer is blaming it all on Republicans. It started with him.”

Retiring Senator Rob Portman of Ohio offered a similar line. “All Leader Schumer has to do is let one amendment be offered, which [Toomey] says he’s willing to do well,” he said.

But Democratic Senator Jon Tester, who chairs the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said that save for one amendment, it was the same legislation that was voted on last week. “No $400 billion slush fund. No other bulls***,” he said.

And he took exception when I brought up Ernst’s objections. “Let’s be honest, things didn’t change,” he said, offering to go line-by-line with Ernst. “It’s the same bill.”

Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, the father of a US Marine, offered a slightly different explanation: Republicans blocked the legislation shortly after Schumer and Senator Joe Manchin announced their climate and healthcare spending deal and this is Republicans’ revenge.

“I mean, I know that the R’s were not happy with the reconciliation bill, but the PACT Act is not the right thing to fool around with,” he said.

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