Military veterans and advocates are pushing back after Republican senators this week blocked passage of a widely supported bipartisan bill that would have provided millions of veterans with expedited health care and disability payments related to illnesses caused by toxic exposure from burn pits during their service.
Comedian and activist Jon Stewart on Thursday during a press conference in front of the Capitol had some choice words for the Republicans who rallied together to block Wednesday evening’s Senate procedural vote on the bill, a stunning reverse of previous support for the measure that Democrats say could be instrumental in saving the lives of sick veterans.
"America's heroes who fought in our wars outside sweating their assess off with oxygen, battling all kinds of ailments while these motherf**kers sit in the air conditioning walled off from any of it," Stewart said on Thursday. "They don't have to hear it, they don't have to see it. They don't have to understand that these are human beings."
Just last month, a nearly identical bill passed in the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support, clearing by a margin of 84-14. The proposed legislation traveled to the House chamber, where representatives made a small technical tweak to remove an obscure tax provision that raised a constitutional concern, and passed again with bipartisan support in a 342-88 vote, sending it back to the Senate.
Twenty-six Republicans changed their votes since last month on Wednesday night when the bill made its way back to the Senate, blocked by a contingency of Republicans led by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., by a vote margin of 55-42. Sixty votes were needed to move forward with the bill. After the vote, GOP senators including Texas' Ted Cruz celebrated together, fist-bumping on the floor.
Senate Republicans now say they want to be able to modify the bill, to fix a "budget gimmick'" they say could be exploited by Democrats.
They say their sudden objection to the bill has nothing to do with the $280B in new spending for veterans' health and are rallying behind Toomey's efforts to close the perceived budget loophole.
“My concern about this bill has nothing to do with the purpose of the bill,” Toomey said on the Senate floor ahead of the vote.
Toomey insisted upon objections to what he claims is an effort by Democrats to free up $400 billion in existing funds already being used for veterans by shuffling the money inside the budget to use for unrelated purposes.
Stewart during Thursday’s press conference called Toomey a "f***ing coward."
"Mitch McConnell yesterday flipped. I'm used to the lies. I'm used to the hypocrisy. Sen. Pat Toomey won't take a meeting with the veterans groups, sends out his chief of staff. I'm used to the cowardice. I've been here a long time. The Senate is where accountability goes to die," Stewart said.
McConnell backed Toomey in a statement Wednesday.
"As written, the legislation would not just help America’s veterans as designed. It could also allow Democrats to effectively spend the same money twice and enable hundreds of billions in new, unrelated spending on the discretionary side of the federal budget," McConnell said
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said he would schedule another procedural vote on Monday. He offered Toomey a vote on an amendment to close the "budget gimmick" that would require 60 votes to be added to the bill. It's unclear if Toomey, and other Republicans, will accept that deal and allow the bill to proceed to a final vote on the floor.
"We offered Toomey -- he's standing in the way -- the ability to do an amendment at 60 votes just like the bill is a 60-vote bill. He insisted, at least in conversations with some others, saying 'no, no, no. If you don't put it in the bill,' which will kill the bill, 'I'm not going to be for it.' I stand by the offer,” Schumer said at a news conference.
Groups of advocates are holding out hope for the vote -- members of Burn Pits 360, a coalition of veterans and their families who have experienced health impacts from the large ground pits where hazardous waste like batteries, medical waste, amputated body parts, plastics, ammunition, human waste, animal carcasses, rubber, chemicals are burned– have rallied on the Capitol steps beginning Thursday evening. Stewart has joined them, along with an appearance from New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
They plan to stay until the vote on Monday.
Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, lambasted Republicans in floor remarks Wednesday and during a press conference Thursday, argued that the GOP is abandoning America's veterans.
"We in essence yesterday took benefits away from the people who have been impacted by war that we sent off to war and we turn our back sand say no we're going to find an excuse to vote against our veterans while we waive the flag talking about how great our fighting men and women are," Tester said.