A procedural vote to advance legislation aimed at helping millions of veterans exposed to toxic burn pits failed on Wednesday afternoon, in a surprise move that the Senate Veterans’ Affairs chairman warned could cost veterans’ lives.
With 60 votes needed to advance, the vote was 55-42 with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer changing his vote from yes to no in order to allow a future vote on the legislation. Twenty-five Republicans who supported the previous version of the bill did not support this procedural vote.
“Veterans are going to die,” said Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat. “They’re not going to get their benefits, they’re not going to get their health care all because of our dysfunction.”
Still, Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said ultimately he expects the legislation to pass “in some form or another,” blaming Schumer for not allowing amendment votes Republicans sought.
“There was an agreement between Senator Tester and (the committee’s ranking Republican Sen. Jerry) Moran for two amendment votes when this bill passed,” Cornyn said. “Senator Schumer would not allow those votes to occur. And what we’re hoping for is there will be a negotiation to eliminate some of the mandatory spending in the bill and then the bill can pass. But this is a cloture vote to provoke a conversation. But I expect it ultimately to pass in some form or another.”
The Senate passed another version of the bill with overwhelming bipartisan support in June with a vote of 84-14. Upon arrival to the House, there was a procedural issue, which the House then corrected and the legislation was sent back to the Senate for final passage.
Tester, one of the lead sponsors of the bill, disputed Cornyn’s reasoning, telling CNN, “Republicans switched their mind.”
“And I will tell you that this is the most bizarre thing,” Tester said. “I’ve seen a lot of bizarre things in this life, in this body, but this is the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen, because we’re taking — we’ve set it up so these folks could get benefits.”
It’s not clear when the Senate vote will be rescheduled. The Senate is expected to leave for a monthlong recess at the end of next week, and lawmakers are racing to finish legislation before going home to constituents as many are campaigning for reelection.