Pa. Sen. Toomey faces heat from Jon Stewart, veterans over burn pit legislation

The legislation would have expanded health care benefits for veterans exposed to toxic material

By: - July 30, 2022 6:30 am

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., speaks during the first post-pandemic meeting of the Pennsylvania Press Club on Monday, June 28, 2021 (Capital-Star photo).

By Justin Sweitzer

Citing a provision that he said would lead to an “explosion” in federal spending, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey was one of 41 Republican senators who voted this week to block legislation that would have expanded health care benefits for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits during their service.

In a speech on the Senate floor this week, Toomey outlined his reasoning for voting against the measure and expressed his desire to amend the bill and fix the provision. But in halting the legislation – known as the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, or the PACT Act – Toomey earned a high-profile foe in the process: former host of “The Daily Show” Jon Stewart.

Stewart, who has long advocated for veterans’ issues, as well as for the families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack, blasted Senate Republicans for not mustering the votes needed to avoid a filibuster.

He also called out Toomey by name, labeling him a coward. “The Senate’s where accountability goes to die,” Stewart said. “These people don’t care. They’re never losing their jobs. They’re never losing their health care. Pat Toomey didn’t lose his job. He’s walking away. God knows what kind of pot of gold he’s stepping into to lobby this government to shit on more people.”

“Patriot Pat Toomey stood on the floor and said, ‘This is a slush fund,’” he added. “‘They’re gonna use $400 billion to spend on whatever they want.’ That’s nonsense. I call bulls**t. This isn’t a slush fund.”

U.S. Senate fails to advance burn pits bill for veterans in dispute over spending

Amy Hasenberg, a spokesperson for Toomey, accused Stewart of “launching false accusations” and ad hominem attacks against Toomey and other GOP senators.

“Throughout his public appearances, Stewart has consistently mischaracterized the actions Senate Republicans have taken,” Hasenberg said. “Yesterday, the media and other elected officials falsely claimed that Republicans have been stalling the PACT Act to retaliate against Democrats’ latest spending spree. This is absolutely false. Senator Toomey has been pushing for a fix to the PACT Act since June 23, when he spoke about this issue on the Senate floor.”

Toomey expanded on the rationale behind his vote against advancing the legislation immediately after casting it, and his office has said his amendment would not decrease funding for veterans benefits in the PACT Act.

“My concern about this bill has nothing to do with the purpose of the bill. It’s not about the approximately $280 billion of new spending that is meant to be required under this bill for the VA to cover Medicare and … other benefits for veterans who are exposed to toxic burn pits,” he said.

“Completely unrelated to the $280 billion of new spending, there is a mechanism created in this bill,” he said. “It’s a budgetary gimmick that has the intent of making it possible to have a huge explosion in unrelated spending – $400 billion.”

Toomey introduced an amendment to alter the PACT Act, though it was laid on the table and not considered. He said, however, that he supports the underlying legislation designed to provide health care and other benefits to veterans exposed to toxic burn pits – it just needs to be fixed first, he said.

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs defines a burn pit as “ an area devoted to open-air combustion of trash. The use of burn pits was a common waste disposal practice at military sites outside the United States, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan. Smoke from these pits contained substances that may have short- and long-term health effects.”

“Once that’s done, this bill sails through this chamber and goes to the president and gets signed into law,” Toomey said on the floor.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, also weighed in on the controversy, accusing Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of preventing a vote on Toomey’s amendment.

“As written, the legislation would not just help America’s veterans as designed. It could also allow Democrats to effectively spend the same money twice and enable hundreds of billions in new, unrelated spending on the discretionary side of the federal budget,” McConnell said in a statement.

“There is no excuse why the Democratic Leader should continue to block Senator Toomey’s commonsense amendment,” he added. “A bill this important and this bipartisan deserves for us to fix this accounting gimmick, and then it deserves to become law.”

Schumer has called the current version of the legislation “the biggest expansion of Veteran Health Care benefits in decades,” adding that it would help “treat vets exposed to toxins in the line of duty.” Another vote on the legislation is expected to occur on Aug. 1, according to Schumer.

Justin Sweitzer is a reporter for City & State Pa., where this story first appeared

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