Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is taking a digital victory lap following the passage of landmark legislation expanding health care benefits for veterans suffering from illnesses due to their in-service exposure to burn pits.
On Wednesday, less than 24 hours after the Senate overwhelmingly approved the bipartisan bill by an 86-11 vote, Rubio’s re-election campaign released a new 30-second video describing him as “a driving force” behind passing the bill.
Known as the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxins Act (PACT Act), the bill includes key provisions from legislation Rubio and Democratic U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand introduced in early 2021, including removing a requirement that veterans must prove a direct connection between their military service and a health condition for more than 20 categories of diseases.
Rubio has remained a vocal advocate for expanding health care benefits for veterans by removing critical hurdles in the qualifying process. In a June video released to his YouTube page, he called the work “very rewarding.”
The bill, which is now on its way to President Joe Biden’s desk, is a major win for veterans who have developed cancer and other ailments after being exposed to toxins in smoke emitting from open-air pits the military uses in some countries to burn garbage and human waste.
It will expand benefits for 3.5 million veterans exposed to burn pits during the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs currently rejects about 70% of disability claims stemming from burn pit exposure for lack of evidence and data from the Defense Department.
The bill is also expected to help hundreds of thousands of other veterans suffering from hypertension, high blood pressure and other maladies due to presumed exposure to Agent Orange.
The Congressional Budget Office expects increased compensation eligibility for roughly 600,000 veterans and survivors of the Vietnam War and another 50,000 who served in American Samoa, Cambodia, Guam, Johnston Atoll, Laos and Thailand.
Through 2032, the CBO projects $277 billion will be added to the federal deficit through the bill, which included no spending cuts or tax increases to help offset its fiscal impact.
“We are finally doing what we should have done two decades ago,” Rubio said in a statement. “Once President Biden signs this bill into law, our veterans will finally be able to access the care they desperately need and selflessly earned.”
The PACT Act initially passed both chambers of Congress in June, but discord over the bill’s language forced it to once more require House and Senate approval. After again advancing through the House, the legislation failed to clear the Senate last week after 25 Republican Senators who had OK’d the bill in June voted “no,” citing concerns about its funding.
Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, one of its most vocal critics since June, complained of a “budget gimmick” in the bill allowing $400 billion of future discretionary spending unrelated to veterans’ care.
“The oldest trick in Washington is to craft a bill to help vulnerable Americans, and then sneak in an unrelated provision that would never pass on its own,” he said in a statement. “That’s exactly what Democrats are doing with the PACT Act.”
Toomey unsuccessfully proffered an amendment cutting the $400 billion out of the bill and leaving it with just the $280 billion expansion of veterans’ benefits.
Joining Toomey in voting against the bill Tuesday were Republican U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo of Idaho, James Lankford of Oklahoma, Mike Lee of Utah, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, Rand Paul of Kentucky, James Risch of Idaho, Mitt Romney of Utah, Richard Shelby of Alabama, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.
Rubio this year could face one of his toughest electoral challenges to date in Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings, a former chief of the Orange County Police Department. Demings is competing in a four-person Primary against candidates Ricardo De La Fuente, Brian Rush and William Sanchez.
Rubio faces no Primary opposition.
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