The Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, also known as the PACT Act, seemed like a slam dunk. Amid some of the most polarized and obstructionist politics in our nation’s history, legislators on both sides were poised to pass a comprehensive bill that would funnel hundreds of millions of dollars toward caring for veterans that were exposed to toxic burn pits and other carcinogens over the course of their service to their country. With an initial vote tally of 84-14, the bill had such a high expectation of passage that groups gathered outside the U.S. Capitol to celebrate the vote.
However, in a stunning move, 25 Republicans that had previously voted to ratify the legislation changed their minds. The bill was eventually defeated by a margin of 55-42 with three abstentions. Among those voting against the legislation were North Carolina Republican senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis. North Carolina is home to the Marine Corps installation Camp Lejeune. Included within the PACT Act was the Camp Lejeune Justice Act; a piece of legislation that would allow Marines and their families that had been stationed at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 days during the time period of August 1, 1953 to December 31, 1987 to seek compensation over cancers and other ailments brought by significant contamination discovered in the drinking water at the base.
Republican reasoning for the change of heart appears to be fragmented. While party leaders cite various budgetary excuses and the enablement of “Democrats to effectively spend the same money twice,” other Republicans like North Carolina’s Tillis postulated that a bill designed specifically to help veterans receive needed care would have “adverse operational and administrative impacts” and lead to “delays in receiving care, and a substantial increase in the claims backlog.”
As the Senate appears to be headed toward landmark climate change legislation however, Democrats believe the move to be a bit more sinister. In remarks made after the vote, Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy proposed that “Republicans are mad that Democrats are on the verge of passing climate change legislation and have decided to take out their anger on vulnerable veterans…because that’s the other thing that’s changed in the last three weeks.” Murphy noted that “30 Republicans that thought helping veterans was a good idea just three weeks ago, all of a sudden have abandoned the cause.”
Veterans do not seem keen to accept Republican excuses for the defeat of the bill. In an interview with NBC News, Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, noted that “the absolute expectation” was a very simple “procedural vote that would go with easy passage.” Instead, what he and other veterans had to witness was a continuation of the same “partisanship and games” that have plagued Congress “for years.” Butler says that “they’re just manufacturing reasons to vote against legislation that they literally voted for just last month…and so it’s really a new level of low.”
Republican Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Steve Daines of Montana were seen fist-bumping each other on the floor of the Senate in celebration of the veteran bill’s defeat while other Republicans shook hands and congratulated each other.
After being thrashed by veterans and those fighting to get them the help they need, the bill has ultimately passed by a vote of 86-11. Those voting against the bill were Republican senators Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania (who decried the bill as a “slush fund” for veterans), Mike Crapo of Idaho, James Lankford of Oklahoma, Mike Lee of Utah, Mitt Romney of Utah, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, Rand Paul of Kentucky, James Risch of Idaho, Richard Shelby of Alabama, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina. Tillis’ state, as noted above, is home to Camp Lejeune which itself is the subject of a bill written to compensate those that served there for their exposure to extremely high levels of contaminants in the drinking water supply.