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The recipe for a good old-fashioned Washington cluster is all here:
- Sympathetic protesters. Veterans rightly seeking care for exposure to toxic burn pits have camped out on the Capitol steps.
- Lots of government money. Senate Republicans are scrambling to explain why a budget issue – they say it’s a gimmick – will lead to a shell game of government spending and is worth holding up help for suffering veterans.
- Ticking clock. Democrats are scrambling to pass the bipartisan burn pits legislation as well as their rekindled climate and health care plan, hoping to do so ahead of their August break in this pivotal election year.
What are burn pits? How have they caused cancer in veterans? Read this from CNN’s Paul LeBlanc.
In short: “Burn pits were used to incinerate all sorts of waste, hazardous material and chemical compounds at military sites throughout Iraq and Afghanistan. Eighty-six percent of post-9/11 veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan say they were exposed to burn pits, according to a 2020 survey by the nonprofit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.”
What’s Toomey’s gripe? It’s an accounting dispute
The GOP’s ringleader obstructing passage of the burn pits legislation is Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, a budget hawk who is retiring from the Senate and so is no longer facing voters.
His problem is the versions of the bill considered earlier this year assumed money for the burn pits care would be appropriated in the regular appropriations process each year by the Senate.
The version senators are currently considering would make the fund essentially permanent and place it in the category of “mandatory” spending, meaning it’s guaranteed forever, but also could create some coveted space in the discretionary budget.
Toomey’s specific concern is Section 805 of a very long bill text. With the title “Cost of War Toxic Exposures Fund,” the language makes clear that, “No amount appropriated to the Fund in fiscal year 2023 or any subsequent fiscal year pursuant to this section shall be counted as discretionary budget authority and outlays or as direct spending …”
Toomey is unapologetic for opposing this tweak and standing in the way of the bill.
He explained his position on “State of the Union” on Sunday, in a long conversation with CNN’s Jake Tapper.
“We are spending way too much money, to use – to hide behind a veterans bill the opportunity to go on an unrelated $400 billion spending spree is wrong,” Toomey said.
He worries that by switching the burn pits fund from discretionary to mandatory spending, it would free up $400 billion in space on the discretionary spending books that lawmakers will use for something else.
“Now when you create that big hole, guess what happens to that big hole,” Toomey said on the Senate floor last month. “It gets filled with spending on who knows what. That’s what’s going on here.”
It may be a valid gripe, but a bill to help veterans sickened by burn pits while they were at war is an awkward place to make a stand.
It’s even more awkward since 25 Republicans who voted for a previous version of the bill are now standing in its way.
What do veterans say?
Veterans protesting around the clock on Capitol Hill argue any wait is too long. They want the bill passed now. And they’re worried that if the spending isn’t made part of the mandatory budget, it could be taken away in the future.
Matt Zeller, a major in the US Army Reserves and an adviser to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told CNN from Capitol Hill that his activist group knows of veterans in despair today.
“When people get sick from these cancers, they’re having to mortgage their homes just to be able to stay alive,” he said. “You know, people think that this is covered by the VA – it’s not. And this bill would fix that for over 3.5 million of us who are exposed to burn pits.”
What’s the answer to Toomey’s complaint?
Supporters of the bill say Toomey is seeing a mirage.
“If you look in the bill for $400 billion that he’s talking about, you won’t see it,” Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough told Tapper after Toomey’s appearance.
McDonough said Toomey’s approach would put an annual cap on how much could go into the fund, potentially end the fund after 10 years and even possibly require care to be withheld from veterans seeking care after exposure to burn pits.
“If his estimations are wrong about what we will spend in any given year, that means that we may have to ration care for veterans,” McDonough said of Toomey.
What’s the subtext here?
Republicans feel played that Democrats are on the cusp of using reconciliation – a very different budget gimmick both sides have used in recent years – to pass health care and climate legislation.
The deal among Democrats for the health and climate legislation was hatched at the last minute with Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. It was announced just after Republicans helped pass a bipartisan bill to prop up a US semiconductor industry.
Lawmakers of all stripes want to wrap up their work and get out on the campaign trail for the rest of August since the November midterm election is fast approaching.
Possible ways out
Republicans could buckle to public pressure to allow a vote on the measure, which has plenty of support to pass.
Democrats could buckle to Republican pressure to allow consideration of amendments and potentially changing budget language in the bill.
Or, neither side buckles and the burn pits legislation dies.
Both sides want to pass the bill, ultimately. Republicans probably won’t mind if it takes a bit longer and further complicates Democrats’ other priorities.