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House Passes Health Bill for Toxic-Exposed Veterans Over GOP Opposition

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Josh Israel

Eighty-eight Republicans voted against the compromise to expand health care coverage for more than 3.5 million veterans.

The House of Representatives voted 342 to 88 on Wednesday to provide better medical care for military veterans who were exposed to toxic chemicals while serving. Eighty-eight Republicans voted against the bipartisan compromise legislation — more than 40% of their caucus.

The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022 would create an interagency Toxic Exposure Research Working Group responsible for planning and expanding federally funded research on toxic exposure; provide more health coverage for service members exposed to burn pits and Agent Orange; and extend health care eligibility to 3.5 million combat veterans who served over the past 21 years.

Though 123 Republicans joined all 219 Democratic members present in voting yes, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Minority Whip Steve Scalise, and National Republican Congressional Campaign Chair Tom Emmer all voted against the bill.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs noted in an announcement on April 25 “that nine rare respiratory cancers are now presumed service-connected disabilities due to military environmental exposures to fine particulate matter” and stated, “In Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas of the Southwest Asia theater of military operations, open-air combustion of trash and other waste in burn pits was a common practice. The Department of Defense has now closed out most burn pits and is planning to close the remainder.”

The House passed a different version of the bill in March on a mostly party-line vote of 256-174. Republicans at that time argued that the bill — estimated to increase direct spending by $281.5 billion over a decade by the Congressional Budget Office — might cost $1 trillion and that they had not been provided information on how it would be paid for.

On May 18, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chair Jon Tester (D-MT) and ranking member Jerry Moran (R-KS) agreed on a bipartisan compromise version of the bill. “For far too long, our nation’s veterans have been living with chronic illnesses as a result of exposures during their time in uniform,” they said in a joint statement announcing their deal. “Today, we’re taking necessary steps to right this wrong with our proposal that’ll provide veterans and their families with the health care and benefits they have earned and deserve. In addition to providing historic relief to all generations of toxic-exposed veterans, this legislation will improve claims processing to meet the immediate and future needs of every veteran it serves.”

Their version passed 84-14 on June 16. But since it contained a tax provision — and bills containing tax provisions, according to the Constitution, must originate in the House of Representatives — the House had to pass the compromise version and send it back to the Senate for one final vote. Final passage there is expected soon.

Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) denounced the legislation on the House floor Wednesday, saying, “The bill spends about $285 billion that we don’t have. … We are destroying the republic that these men and women sacrifice for … We do a disservice to the military that we say that we support when we are not spending money that we actually have, as opposed to printing money and borrowing money. … These are real concerns that we ought to address, but fundamentally, you have to pay for that which we are spending.”

President Joe Biden strongly backs the legislation and has made addressing toxic burn pit exposure a top administration policy.

In his 2022 State of the Union address in March, Biden told lawmakers that his late son’s fatal cancer might have stemmed from toxic exposure during his Iraq War service: “When they came home, many of the world’s fittest and best-trained warriors were never the same. Headaches. Numbness. Dizziness. A cancer that would put them in a flag-draped coffin. I know. One of those soldiers was my son, Major Beau Biden. We don’t know for sure if a burn pit was the cause of his brain cancer or the diseases of so many of our troops. But I’m committed to finding out everything we can.”

On July 12, every Republican on the House Rules Committee voted against advancing the bill. GOP lawmakers pushed to require that its costs be offset by reductions in pending COVID-19 relief funds and that they be limited to just $116.8 billion over a decade.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, noted in a June press release that the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of the bipartisan compromise bill to be $278.5 billion over 10 years.

This story was written by Josh Israel, a former senior investigative reporter at ThinkProgress, where this story first appeared.

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