Editor’s Note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM radio’s daily program “The Dean Obeidallah Show” and a columnist for The Daily Beast. Follow him @DeanObeidallah. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
“Their constituents are dying. And they’re going to get it done after recess?”
Those were the words from a visibly angry Jon Stewart after 41 Republican senators last week voted to block advancement of legislation that would help thousands of veterans suffering from cancer, respiratory illness and other ailments. On Tuesday night, the Senate voted to pass the long-sought bipartisan bill. The final vote was 86-11, and the legislation will now go to President Joe Biden’s desk.
Last week, while Senate Democrats voted unanimously to pass the measure, Republicans voted to stall the Honoring Our PACT Act, which aims to provide assistance to veterans who have become ill after being exposed to burn pits during their military service.
Stewart, the former late night comedian-turned-activist arguably has been the most vocal critic of GOP lawmakers who voted the measure down in that procedural vote, a move that looked likely to delay the measure until after lawmakers return from their summer break in September.
The veterans don’t have the luxury of waiting another month, he said.
“Tell their cancer to take a recess,” he told CNN one day after learning that the measure had stalled. “Tell their cancer to stay home and go visit their families.”
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer held the new vote on the measure Tuesday evening, giving Republicans a chance to prove that they actually do support the troops to whom they so often pay lip service.
The GOP tried to score political points by delaying this vital piece of legislation that would assist an estimated 3.5 million military veterans. This issue is literally a matter of life and death for those sickened by exposure to toxins emitted from burn pits.
Burn pits were commonly used to burn trash, munitions, hazardous material and chemical compounds at military sites throughout Iraq and Afghanistan until about 2010. They were often operated at or near military bases, releasing dangerous toxins into the air that may have caused short- and long-term health conditions.. But in the past, more than 70% of claims filed for disabilities connected to burn pit exposure were denied by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
The PACT Act would fix that. The legislation would provide hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade to help them. And going forward, veterans exposed to burn pits will now have the presumption of having contracted certain respiratory illnesses and cancers, allowing them to more easily obtain disability payments.
So why did Senate Republicans block legislation that would help millions of vets last week? Could it be that the GOP doesn’t want to hand President Biden a legislative win on an issue he has long championed – especially so close to November’s midterm election?
Some speculate that Republicans backtracked as part of a backlash after being caught by surprise over the deal announced last week by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer – forged in secrecy with West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin – on legislation to address climate change, help lower prescription drug costs and increase tax revenues.
Republican Senator Ted Cruz – who not only voted against the bill last Wednesday to aid veterans, but despicably, was seen fist-bumping other GOP Senators to celebrate the blockage of the legislation – claimed it was because the measure contained a budget “gimmick.”
Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who was a leading voice in oposition to the bill, said in a statement after the vote last week that scuttled the bill that if it were to approve the bill in its current form, “Congress would effectively be using an important veterans care bill to hide a massive, unrelated spending binge.” Cruz told TMZ that the bill represented “part of the out-of-control spending by the left.”
But Cruz and his Republican colleagues in the Senate in mid-June passed an almost identical version of the bill, which cleared the chamber by a vote of 84-14, (with all 14 “no” votes coming from Republicans).
Stewart, who has been publicly advocating for this legislation since September 2020 (and who also championed efforts to increase federal funding for 9/11 First responders) called out Cruz on Twitter. “This isn’t a game. Real people’s lives hang in the balance… People that fought for your life,” he wrote.
Stewart is 100% correct about Republican game-playing. The PACT Act passed the House last month with only minor tweaks – but those minor changes prompted another vote by the Senate. Last week, 25 GOP senators, including Cruz – flipped their earlier “yes” votes to block it.
Democratic Senator Jon Tester, who co-wrote the bill with Kansas Republican Senator Jerry Moran, said Republicans’ explanations for why they pulled their support in last week’s vote just didn’t hold water.
“My colleagues can make up all sorts of excuses as to why they decided to change their vote for this bill,” he said.
All in all, it amounts to the worst type of political gamesmanship, with the lives of America’s veterans in the balance. They deserve far better. And Tuesday night, they got it.