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The Senate passes help for veterans exposed to toxins, after a reversal drew fury

Drew Angerer
Getty Images
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) looks on Tuesday as Susan Zeier, mother-in-law of the late Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson, hugs Rosie Torres, wife of veteran Le Roy Torres, who suffers from illnesses related to his exposure to burn pits in Iraq, after the Senate passed the PACT Act at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

The U.S. Senate, in a bipartisan 86-11 vote, approved a measure to provide health care and benefits for millions of veterans injured by exposure to toxins, from Agent Orange in Vietnam to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Known as the PACT Act, the bill no longer would force generations of veterans to prove that their illness was caused by toxic exposures suffered in the military in order to get VA coverage. It had been hailed as the largest expansion of care in VA history, and was expected to cost $280 billion over a decade.

The House passed the measure in July. President Biden, who supports the PACT Act, is expected to sign it into law.

The bill — like many issues related to veterans' health — had amassed deep bipartisan support, and easily passed the Senate by an 84-14 vote in June. But a technical error required another vote last week, and this time, more than two dozen Republicans switched sides. That triggered an uproar among Democrats and advocacy groups, who accused Republicans of selling veterans out.

Republicans said their opposition was tied to an argument over which portion of the federal budget would pay for $280 billion worth of funds for veteran health programs. But Democratic lawmakers contended that the about-face came just after Democrats reached an agreement of their own on a separate reconciliation bill.