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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The month of August has taken on a new meaning for Kristi Casteel of Marion, one marked now not only by sorrow but “poetic justice.”
“I looked up the definition and it means fitting or deserved retribution for one’s actions — and felt how true is that for everyone of the soldiers there (who camped out at the U.S. Capitol) that have been impacted,” Casteel said.
Facing increasing pressure from Democrats and veterans advocacy organizations, the U.S. Senate passed a bill late Tuesday expanding health care and disability benefits for millions of veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. The Senate passed the measure, 86-11, with Iowa Republican U.S. Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley in favor.
Ernst, a combat veteran, had previously objected with some other Republicans to a budget provision in the bill, which briefly blocked its passage. Casteel said explanations given for objecting didn't make sense to her and seemed like a distraction.
“Not knowing 100 percent what caused them to change their minds, I just have to say I’m glad they did,” she said. “It’s been the right thing to do from the beginning and they’ve done what is right and I’m just very happy about that.”
Democratic President Joe Biden has pushed for the legislation and is expected to sign the bill into law.
Ernst switches vote, again
Casteel’s late son, Joshua, died in August 2012 at age 32 of lung cancer his family believes was caused by toxins from the burn pit at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, where he served as an interrogator from 2004 to 2005.
“August is the month Joshua passed away and is always a month that is a difficult month,” Casteel said. “This is something that I can be happy about. This adds a different meaning to August for me.”
She added her son, were he still alive, would feel the same.
“One of the last things he said … was we would work towards eliminating the potential of using burn pits ever again, just knowing the hazardous nature of them, and it’s happened,” Casteel said. “For that, I’m grateful.”
Tuesday’s vote ended a brief stalemate when the process derailed after some Senate Republicans, including Ernst, made a late attempt last week to change a budget provision in the bill and blocked it from advancing, infuriating veterans advocacy groups. A key voting bloc in the Nov. midterm elections, the advocacy groups ramped up the political pressure over the last five days on GOP lawmakers to act.
The Honoring Our PACT Act first passed the Senate in June, 84-14, and by a 342-88 vote in the House. But technical corrections sent the measure back to the Senate for another procedural vote July 27. Twenty-five Republicans who supported the previous version of the bill — including Ernst — changed their vote over how the government accounts for spending slated for veterans programs.
The bill is projected to increase federal deficits by about $277 billion over 10 years and does not include offsetting spending cuts or tax increases. When the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office scored the bill, it projected that nearly $400 billion slated to be spent on health services would move from discretionary to mandatory spending.
The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan fiscal watchdog, said a reclassification of the $390 billion from discretionary to mandatory spending would “both reduce the pressure to keep those costs under control and make it easier for appropriators to spend more elsewhere in the budget without offsets.”
Those dynamics, however, also applied to the bill when Senate Republicans had overwhelmingly approved the measure in June.
Ernst votes to pass after amendments fail
Ernst blamed Democrats for not allowing the chance to offer amendments “to strengthen” the bill, and sided with Pennsylvania Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, who sought a vote on an amendment he said would not reduce spending on veterans but would limit the ability of Congress to increase spending on unrelated, nondefense programs down the road.
The amendment, which Ernst supported, would have kept the $390 billion in spending in the discretionary budget. Senate Republicans claim doing so will save Americans significant costs in the long run without sacrificing a dollar for veterans.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer struck a deal Tuesday with Republicans to let the Senate vote on the Toomey amendment as well as two others, with 60 votes needed for passage, the same number that was needed to advance the bill itself.
After voting for the Toomey amendment, which failed, Ernst voted with Grassley and others Tuesday to pass the PACT Act without it.
“Our veterans, who have sacrificed so much and continue to pay the price for their service, deserve the life-saving benefits in this bill,” Ernst said in a statement. “The PACT Act works to fulfill our duty to care for those who put on the uniform in the name of protecting our freedom, both past and present.”
Grassley has consistently supported the PACT Act and voted in favor of advancing the bill last week.
"The bipartisan Honoring Our PACT Act is a critical investment in our veterans, who deserve the best care possible,“ Grassley said in a statement. ”By making much-needed improvements to the VA, including strengthening its workforce and health care facilities, this bill will help ensure veterans who have sacrificed so much to defend freedom, peace and prosperity will be well taken care of.“
Veterans who served in the post Sept. 11, 2001, era and were exposed to toxic burn pits will get 10 years — rather than five — of enhanced health care coverage through the Department of Veterans Affairs upon their separation from the military.
The PACT Act also adds 23 illnesses to the VA’s list of toxic-exposure-related ailments presumed to be connected to military service, ending the need for veterans with those conditions to prove to the VA their illnesses were linked to their deployments. And it would expand care for veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
More Iowa veterans exposed to toxins during their military service will qualify for benefits and have an easier time having claims processed under recently passed federal legislation, according to the Iowa American Legion.
“We are happy to get additional coverage for veterans with respiratory issues and, essentially, get them the compensation they deserve for the exposure to the chemicals and toxin they were exposed to during their military service,” said John Derner, department adjutant of the American Legion of Iowa.
The Associated Press contributed to this report
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