Advocate and comedian Jon Stewart joined Democratic leaders and veterans groups in intensifying pressure on Republicans after many switched tactics and voted to stall legislation giving veterans exposed to toxic burn pits access to expanded health benefits.
Forty-one Republican senators moved to force debate on amendments that would reduce future mandatory spending in the bill. The majority of those lawmakers had supported another version of the bill last month.
“They love to say they support the troops, but they don’t support the troops,” Stewart told reporters. “They support the war machine.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said later Thursday that he will bring the legislation back to the floor next week, and that he will allow Pennsylvania Republican Senator Pat Toomey to bring an amendment addressing mandatory spending to the floor for debate.
“We are going to give our Republican friends another opportunity to vote on this Monday night,” Schumer told reporters.
The Republican senators who changed their minds, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, did so shortly after West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin announced a deal with Schumer on a separate tax and spending bill that Republicans are united against.
The Senate’s passage of burn pits legislation last month on an 84-14 vote hit a snag over a line on nontaxable benefits. The Constitution requires all bills with tax items to originate in the House. The House passed the bill on an overwhelming 342-88 vote earlier this month.
“There are going to be veterans who die between now and when this bill passes,” Senate Veterans Affairs Chairman Jon Tester said. “I apologize for the dysfunction, but if we’re able to step up, I think we can right this ship.”
Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, who supported the legislation last month before opposing Wednesday’s procedural vote, told reporters he believes the bill will eventually pass, provided Republicans are allowed debate on their amendments. Democrats want to pass the bill before they break for the August recess.
“I don’t know what we can do to convince the Republicans to do the right thing except for public opinion weighing in,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. “You have to say to them: ‘Why did you abandon our veterans?’”
Toomey, who has consistently voted against the bill, said it creates a “slush fund” and would create “a huge explosion” in veterans’ funding in the future. But Stewart, who featured the debate on toxic burn pits on his Apple TV show, sharply criticized the senator, who retires at the end of this Congress.
“He doesn’t care. He’s not coming back. He’s retired,” said Stewart, who also called Toomey a coward.
The issue is personal for President Joe Biden, who lost his son Beau to brain cancer. Beau Biden served overseas near burn pits, and Biden has suggested that the toxins from the pits may have caused the disease. The president mentioned protections for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits in his first State of the Union address this year.