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Senate Republicans under criticism after blocking burn pit benefits bill

By Pedro Oliveira Jr.
1/6
Brielle Robinson, the 9-year-old daughter of Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson, holds a poster Thursday during a press conference in Washington on the Senate's failure to pass The PACT Act, which includes health care, presumption of service-connection, research, resources, and other matters related to veterans who were exposed to toxic substances during military service. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/e85041f1e61023fa53bffa1b140a3c9c/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
Brielle Robinson, the 9-year-old daughter of Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson, holds a poster Thursday during a press conference in Washington on the Senate's failure to pass The PACT Act, which includes health care, presumption of service-connection, research, resources, and other matters related to veterans who were exposed to toxic substances during military service. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI | License Photo

July 28 (UPI) -- Senate Republicans are under heavy political fire after they blocked a bill that would have granted healthcare coverage to veterans suffering from exposure to toxic burn pits during service.

The criticism stems from Wednesday's vote in the Senate, when the Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act failed by a 55-42 vote, just shy of clearing a filibuster-proof 60.

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The PACT Act had passed the Senate on a bipartisan 84-14 vote in June. But after undergoing changes in the House, which passed the bill in a 342-88 vote, the new version failed to muster enough support in the Senate.

"This is total bull----," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., told reporters outside the Capitol. "We had strong bipartisan support for this bill. And at the eleventh hour, Sen. (Pat) Toomey decides that he wants to rewrite the bill, change the rules, and tank it."

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Toomey, R-Pa., said he voted against the bill because of a "budget gimmick that would allow $400 billion of current law spending to be moved from the discretionary to the mandatory spending category."

"By failing to remove this gimmick, Congress would effectively be using an important veterans care bill to hide a massive, unrelated spending binge," he said in a statement.

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Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, called the move an "act of cowardice" that will "actively harm this country's veterans and their families."

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"Republicans chose today to rob generations of toxic-exposed veterans across this country of the healthcare and benefits they so desperately need -- and make no mistake, more veterans will suffer and die as a result," Tester added in a statement.

Veterans' advocates were left dismayed by the bill's failure.

"Every day that this delay goes on, veterans are unable to receive care," Lawrence Montreuil, legislative director for The American Legion, told The Hill. "This is wrong -- we will not stand by and allow veterans to be denied their duly owed healthcare."

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A visibly shaken Jon Stewart, who went to the capital to follow deliberations over the bill, called the debacle a "disgrace."

"You don't tell their cancer to take a recess, tell their cancer to stay home and go visit their families," Stewart, of Daily Show fame, told reporters after the hearing, at times pausing to regain his composure. "This disgrace, if this is America first, America is f----d."

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