Senate Republicans are reversing course on a veterans health care bill, signaling they’ll now help it quickly move to President Joe Biden’s desk after weathering several days of intense criticism for delaying the legislation last week.
Republicans insist their decision to hold up the legislation, which expands health care for veterans exposed to toxic substances while on active duty, was unrelated to a deal struck between Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Republicans blocked the bill just hours after the two key Democrats announced that they had reached an agreement to move forward on a party-line health care, climate and tax package — angering Republicans who thought the legislation would be limited to certain health care provisions.
Regardless of their reasoning, the GOP was quickly forced to play defense against both Democrats and veterans groups, who were caught off guard by Republicans’ move to delay the legislation after overwhelmingly greenlighting a nearly identical bill in June.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declined to respond to a question Monday about why the legislation was held up.
“It will pass this week,” he said.
Other Republicans in Senate leadership struck a similar tone. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) told POLITICO he would “expect it to pass” and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), McConnell’s No. 2, echoed that at “some point this is going to pass and it will pass big.”
Republicans say they blocked the bill because of concerns spearheaded by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) over what the retiring senator called a “budgetary gimmick” that he argued could allow certain funds to be used for programs unrelated to veterans’ health care. That language was in the bill when it initially passed the Senate in an 84-14 vote, before a technical snag forced the chamber to vote on it again.
“This stuff got drug out, but remember why it got drug out. When they passed it over here the first time, they did it wrong,“ Thune said, adding it was Democrats who “screwed up the first time.”
Schumer is expected to force another vote on the veterans bill this week, vowing Monday that he would bring it up “in the coming days.”
“We’re going to give Senate Republicans another chance to do the right thing,” he said.
The New York Democrat will likely give Republicans an off ramp by granting Toomey a vote on his proposed amendment, which the Pennsylvania Republican and many of his colleagues say he’s been requesting for months.
“The ball is in the court of the leader and I’ve not heard what he’s decided to do … we have not been told that we have an amendment vote scheduled. Hopefully, that will be forthcoming,” Toomey said Monday.
The amendment explanation has done little to curb Democratic attacks that the GOP used non-controversial legislation to help veterans exposed to Agent Orange and toxic burn pits while overseas as a political football. They pointed to Republicans not blocking the bill over the budgetary issue in June, when only 23 GOP senators voted against advancing the bill compared to 42 last week.
“I’m doing everything I can do,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “I don’t know people really understand what they were voting on, to be honest with you. There’s no slush fund in this.”
And, even if Toomey gets a vote, his amendment isn’t expected to have enough support to ultimately get included in the veterans bill — leaving Republicans with the same bill most of them voted to block last week. And some are still saying they’re not willing to kill the legislation over the amendment push.
“If I get a chance to vote for an amendment I might vote for the amendment, but I want to make sure the bill doesn’t get killed,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who added he generally agreed with Toomey’s concern. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) similarly said he broadly supported the amendment.
Still, Toomey has been trying to rally his colleagues behind holding up the veterans bill in private caucus meetings, with Republicans arguing that Democrats promised an amendment vote on his concerns back in June but then reneged.
Those disputes largely flew under the radar until last week, when the bill crashed on the floor. Veterans advocates groups had flown into Washington expecting to celebrate passage of the bill — instead, it became a press conference to rail against the GOP senators who held it up.
“As someone who has worked on this bill for years, I’m just disappointed that some of my Republican colleagues — whether out of personal pique or some misguided political motive — they wanted to flip flop, but as long as it comes to the right result, that’s what’s important for the country and for veterans,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
And the criticism hasn’t let up this week.
Comedian Jon Stewart — rallying alongside veterans, who’ve been camped outside the Senate for days — on Monday slammed Republicans for slowing the bill’s passage.
“I’m not scared of you and I don’t care, because these are the people I owe a debt of gratitude to,” Stewart said. “Don’t leave here tonight until you do the right thing by these folks. Simple as that: Don’t make this harder than it is.”
Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.