Republicans look for escape hatch amid controversy on veterans bill

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(The Hill) – Senate Republicans are looking for a way to quietly end a standoff over legislation to help veterans suffering from toxic exposure that has turned into a major distraction and put them on the defensive at a critical moment.    

Activists representing veterans are enraged after GOP lawmakers blocked a $278 billion bill aimed at helping veterans suffering from health ailments because of their exposure to toxins. They’ve been staging a sit-in protest on the Capitol steps since Thursday to draw attention to Republican opposition.   

The legislation initially passed the Senate in June by a lopsided 84-14 vote, and Republican senators are struggling to explain why they’re now holding up the same bill on the Senate floor.   

Jon Stewart, the former “Daily Show” host who for years has acted as an activist for veterans and first responder groups, has relentlessly pummeled the GOP over its stance, drawing a barrage of media attention to the issue.    

Stewart took delight in pillorying conservative Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in a recent video in which he responded to Cruz’s objections to the bill point by point. He characterized Cruz’s arguments as “inaccurate, not true, bullshit” and concluded the video with footage of Cruz fist-bumping a colleague after the legislation failed on the floor last Thursday.     

Republicans concede the standoff is not a good look for them three months before a crucial election and that they’re taking most of the blame for the stalled bill.    

Asked if Republicans are getting blamed, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a combat veteran, replied: “Yeah, and it’s unfair.”    

Now Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), are predicting the bill will pass this week, even if they can’t amend it, signaling they’re ready to move on from the politically damaging fight.    

GOP senators insist they support the substance of the bill, but are objecting to what they say is an accounting gimmick that will likely add to future budget deficits.  

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), whose home state has one of the highest numbers of veterans per 100,000 residents, said strong Republican support for the bill was demonstrated by the bipartisan vote to pass it in June.     

“I want to see the PACT Act pass,” Daines said referring to the Honoring Our Pact Act.    

He said that he and other Republicans agreed to support Sen. Pat Toomey’s (R-Pa.) objection to the bill because “Sen. Toomey raised a legitimate question about how the funding works.”   

Toomey, a leading Republican voice on fiscal issues, says the bill designates the $400 billion the Department of Veterans Affairs is slated to spend over the next decade to help veterans exposed to toxins as mandatory spending. Traditionally, this spending is classified as discretionary, which means it needs to fit under annual discretionary spending caps.     

Toomey, who is not up for reelection this year because he is retiring from the Senate, argues that converting to the mandatory side of the ledger will give Congress flexibility to fit other spending programs under the annual budget caps.   

“Here’s the problem with this bill, here’s the budgetary gimmick, this is what’s outrageous,” Toomey said on the floor recently. “It enables that spending to be shifted from the discretionary category to the mandatory category of spending.   

“By moving this big category of spending, this $400 billion, out of the discretionary category and putting it into mandatory, you create this big hole under the [budget] cap,” he added. “Guess what happens with that big hole? It gets filled with spending on who knows what.”   

The problem for Senate Republicans, however, is that it’s not easy to explain to the American public why this is a deal-breaker.     

It’s complicated by the fact that 34 Republicans voted for the bill six weeks ago, even though that version of the bill also designated the new veterans funding as mandatory spending.    

Stewart in the video responding to Cruz and other Senate GOP critics declared: “There was no budgetary trick and it was always mandatory and when they voted in the Senate June 16, they actually got 84 votes.”

Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough warned in a CNN interview over the weekend that Toomey’s amendment could lead to the “rationing of care for vets” because it would place “a year-on-year cap” on what his department can spend to help veterans suffering from exposure to burn pits.  

Republicans have also come under criticism from Democrats over their motivation for blocking the bill.   

Several Democrats view it as retaliation for a separate deal worked out last week by Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). That budget reconciliation package is a top priority for Democrats and is being moved under special budget rules that prevent a GOP filibuster.  

After 25 Republican who had previously voted “yes” for the veterans bill voted “no” on a measure to advance it last week, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) accused them of “holding our service members hostage for the sake of politics.”    

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) accused them of plotting revenge after learning of the Schumer-Manchin deal on climate and taxes.    

“Republicans are mad that Democrats are on the verge of passing climate change legislation and have decided to take their anger out on vulnerable veterans,” he told Vox.com.   

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who has led the floor debate, said it’s “a very bad decision by the Republicans.”   

Democratic aides say Schumer offered Toomey a vote on an amendment related to the mandatory spending designation six weeks ago, but 34 Republicans still voted for the bill even though that amendment vote never happened.     

In other words, even many of Toomey’s GOP colleagues weren’t prepared to block the popular bill over arcane debate over mandatory and discretionary spending earlier this summer. That changed when Democrats announced a breakthrough deal on climate and taxes.    

But now Republicans are being forced to play defense and offer complicated explanations about why they’re holding up the veterans bill.   

They would prefer to go on the offense and attack Democrats for raising taxes and fueling inflation with the climate and tax bill they intend to pass later this week.   

Republicans backed Toomey last week but are ready to end the standoff soon.  

“Some of our members are like, ‘Toomey’s talking about this for several weeks in our conference meetings, let’s try and fix this.’ He’s got a legitimate issue but clearly at some point this is going to pass and it’s going to pass big,” said Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.).  

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