Editorials, Opinion

GOP stunt during PACT Act vote may backfire this fall

We’ve said it before, but we’ll say it again: When it comes to government, intention often takes a back seat to appearances.

And the appearance of denying veterans health care has left Republican lawmakers scrambling to do damage control.

For context, the controversy surrounds passage of the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act. The PACT Act has two major features: It instructs Veterans Affairs hospitals to provide patients with a greater benefit of the doubt when veterans report that certain injuries or illnesses, such as cancers, are service-related; and creates longer windows for making a claim the veteran was exposed to dangerous chemicals and should be covered by VA benefits. (Previously, more than 70% of claims for service-related injuries or illnesses thought to be caused by burn pits were denied.)

The primary example has been of veterans who were stationed at or near burn pits in the Middle East. The bill’s namesake, Sgt. Heath Robinson, died in 2020 from a rare lung cancer he believed resulted from exposure to toxic smoke while deployed in Iraq from 2006-07. However, the bill specifies presumption of service-related illness for specific wars or operations going all the way back to Vietnam.

The House (256-174) and Senate (84-14) had passed the PACT Act in June. Unfortunately, “technical problems” — as phrased by most news outlets, or “administrative issues” as phrased by Vox — required the Senate to take a re-vote last Wednesday.

With dozens of veteran groups, veterans and their allies gathered for what everyone expected to be a mundane procedure, the Senate called for the vote — and 25 Republicans who had previously voted yea changed their votes to nay, fillibustering it.

And so began the PR nightmare.

The vote took place just hours after Sen. Joe Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced they had reached an agreement on the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (a rebranded and significantly slimmed down version of President Biden’s Build Back Better). With Manchin’s support locked in, the bill is almost guaranteed to pass through the reconciliation process, which only requires 50 votes plus the vice president’s tie breaker.

The 25 very abrupt changes of heart look like spiteful revenge. Just weeks before, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had tried to sink the Inflation Reduction Act by refusing to allow a vote on the CHIPS Act (to up American semiconductor production) until the reconciliation bill was off the table. With Manchin publicly proclaiming his rejection of Democrats’ spending plan, McConnell allowed the CHIPS Act to come to a vote and it passed, only for the reconciliation package to be revived days later.

Sen. Pat Toomey, who had vocally opposed the funding mechanism of the PACT Act from the beginning, insists that the changed votes are because more Republicans finally came around to his way of thinking and want to see his amendment presented.

But timing is everything, and Republicans’ stunt looks to be little more than a political temper tantrum at the expense of the nation’s bravest.

The PACT Act is expected to come up for a vote again before the end of the week, maybe even as early as today. With or — more likely — without Toomey’s amendment, the bill is expected to pass with bipartisan support.

Republicans gambled by backtracking on their PACT Act votes, and any short-term gain they may have gotten from temporarily derailing Democrats’ plans may turn into long-term loss as voters look back at this incident come November.