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Bipartisan Senate vote sends burn pit benefits bill to Biden's desk

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Brielle Robinson, the 9-year-old daughter of Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson, holds a poster during a press conference on the Senate's failure to pass The PACT Act at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI
Brielle Robinson, the 9-year-old daughter of Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson, holds a poster during a press conference on the Senate's failure to pass The PACT Act at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI | License Photo

Aug. 2 (UPI) -- The U.S. Senate gave strong bipartisan support in its second vote on legislation granting healthcare coverage to veterans who have been exposed to toxic burn pits during service.

The chamber voted 86-11 in favor of the Honoring our PACT Act. The House passed it in June, which means the legislation now goes to President Joe Biden's desk for a signature.

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Biden released a statement saying he looks forward to signing the bill.

"I have long said we have a lot of obligations as a nation, but we have only one sacred obligation -- to prepare and equip those we send to war and to take care of them and their families when they come home," he said.

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Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York said it was "shameful" that service members who were exposed to toxic chemicals during duty abroad should be denied the help they need. He called the passage a "wonderful moment."

"It is infuriating," he said on the Senate floor ahead of the vote. "Today, we tell our veterans suffering from cancers, lung diseases, other ailments from burn pits that the wait is over for the benefits you deserve.

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"No more pointless delays on getting the healthcare you need. No more jumping through hoops and even hiring lawyers just to get an answer from the VA."

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In addition to healthcare services and other benefits for those suffered from toxic-related illnesses, the PACT Act gives financial assistance to spouses and children of those who died from toxic exposure, including tuition, life insurance home loan assistance and healthcare.

Senate Republicans blocked the legislation last week over what Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., described as a "budget that would allow $400 billion of current law spending to be moved from the discretionary to the mandatory spending category."

The Senate initially passed the bill by a 84-14 vote in June, but after the legislation underwent changes in the House the upper chamber was unable to clear a filibuster-proof 60 votes Wednesday.

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Toomey introduced an amendment Tuesday that would have changed the accounting issue, but it failed to reach a 60-vote threshold for passage.

The votes against the PACT Act drew ire from Senate Democrats, veterans groups and comedian Jon Stewart, who spoke outside the Capitol in support of the legislation.

"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 [expletive]."

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Pedro Oliveira Jr. contributed to this report.

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