WASHINGTON — A procedural vote to advance a bill that would expand health care access for 3.5 million military veterans who became ill after being exposed to toxic burn pits failed to pass in the Senate on Wednesday.
The bill died on a 55-42 vote: five short of the 60 votes required to advance the legislation.
The Honoring Our PACT Act adds 23 cancers and respiratory illnesses to the Department of Veterans Affairs' must-cover list. But, Republican lawmakers unexpectedly blocked it, just weeks after voting for it.
Supporters of the measure quickly lashed out.
"We, in essence, took benefits away from the people who have been impacted by war, that we sent to war," said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana).
Kristina Keenan of the Veterans of Foreign Wars said: "Promises were made and promises were broken. Senators [Tom] Cotton, [Joni] Ernst, [Dan] Sullivan are veterans and they are delaying health care for some of the men and women they served with."
Keenan continued: "No senator should leave next week until they take care of the people who fought to defend this country."
Lawrence Montreuil of the American Legion also spoke out. He said: "On behalf of the American Legion and our nearly 2 million members, I'd like to emphasize the fact that this delay is absolutely unacceptable. Every day that this delay goes on, veterans are unable to receive care. This is wrong."
Rep Elaine Luria (D-Virginia, 2nd District) is vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee and a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
She said: "It's really unexplainable to me how so many senators decided to play I'd call it a political trick over taking care of our veterans. And the longer that it takes to get this passed and to the President's desk and signed into law, there' literally are veterans going without care."
But Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) remains hopeful the PACT Act can ultimately be saved.
"I think you'll see us take up this PACT as soon as today or early next week, and I think you'll see us pass it by a sizeable, bipartisan margin," he said.
Long-time veterans advocate Jon Stewart showed up for Thursday's Capitol Hill news conference. He called the senators who opposed the PACT Act "cowards" and he said making vets wait any longer for care is "abject cruelty."