Unpacking the PACT Act
Who is lying about why Republicans blocked the bill?
Yet another political brouhaha emerged last week when 25 Republicans switched their votes on a bill that would have provided health care and benefits for veterans exposed to toxic substances during their military service. Although the bill is most associated with illnesses that result from burn pits, it would also help veterans who became ill from other causes such as exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
The facts of the matter are that the bill came up for a vote in the Senate in June and passed handily by an 84-14 vote. The bill then went to the House where it was amended, then it went back to the Senate for what was expected to be a pro forma vote to agree to the House’s changes. In a surprise move, 25 Republicans suddenly changed their votes and bill failed to reach cloture (i.e. break the filibuster) by a vote of 55-42. Under Senate rules, 60 votes are required for cloture to move a bill to a vote for passage. That vote requires only a simple majority. The reason for the Republican changeup is the subject of debate.
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Senators Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have become the face of the opposition in the days since the vote. Toomey gave a speech on the Senate floor attempting to justify his opposition. For his part, Cruz hearkened back to a famous John Kerry flip-flop from the 2004 presidential campaign with an explanation of why he voted for the PACT Act before he voted against it.
Toomey and Cruz claim that the bill contains a “gimmick” that, as Toomey explains on his website, “would allow $400 billion of current law spending to be moved from the discretionary to the mandatory spending category… [and] would enable an additional $400 billion in future discretionary spending completely unrelated to veterans. By failing to remove this gimmick, Congress would effectively be using an important veterans care bill to hide a massive, unrelated spending binge.”
Toomey further explains in his floor speech, “This gimmick was not in the House bill, but some senators found it necessary to add this.”
There is a problem with this claim, however. Most reporting on the kerfuffle simply states that the bill had to pass a second vote because of a “technicality” without explaining what the technicality was. When I decided to look for the answer, it took quite a bit of searching, but I was determined that I absolutely did not want to read one bill, let alone compare two different versions line by line.
I eventually found the answer, and it undercut Toomey’s claim. First, the changes were made in the House, not the Senate. Further, the changes did not create a “budget gimmick” but rather eliminated one.
As David Lerman explains in Roll Call, the bill that the Senate sent to the House contained a provision “which would have let doctors, nurses, and other health care providers receive tax-free buyouts of their contracts if they agree to work for the VA at rural veterans’ clinics.”
Lerman wrote. “Since the House had never considered the tax provision, it ran afoul of a constitutional requirement that all revenue measures must originate in the House.”
This was the only change made between the two votes.
Actually, that isn’t true. There was another change. As Jamie Dupree points out on Twitter, the name of the bill was changed to the “Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022 or the Honoring our PACT Act of 2022.” But, as Dupree adds, the only other material change was to delete the buyout provision.
Was there another version of the bill before the version that passed in June that might have contained Toomey’s gimmick? The congressional website does show five different versions of the bill. Maybe Toomey’s gimmick was in one of them, but no one seems able to have identified it within the text of the current bill. As much as I’ve seen people talk about this alleged “gimmick,” I have yet to see anyone point to a passage of the text and say, “Here it is.” It seems that would be an easy way to resolve the issue… if the gimmick existed.
So the bill that passed in June was the same as the bill that Toomey & Co. shot down last week with the exception of a buyout clause for VA doctors. The question then becomes what made 25 Republicans decide to abruptly vote against the bill.
Senator John Cornyn of Texas seems to have provided an answer.
In his tweet, Cornyn blames Chuck Schumer for not keeping his promises, but as we have seen, Schumer didn’t tamper with the PACT bill. What Schumer did do was reach a deal with maverick Democrat, Joe Manchin.
Cornyn and other Republicans say that Schumer promised that the reconciliation bill, which the Manchin compromise is built around, was dead. On the other hand, Schumer’s office told Time that he made no such statement. Even some Republicans acknowledge that such a promise by Schumer was unlikely.
Cornyn’s tweet adds a second element as well. The other Texas senator predicts that the bill “will pass next week.”
So the full story seems to be that the Republican caucus was angry about the Manchin compromise. In retaliation, they cooked up a story about a budget gimmick that added $400 billion in spending, even though, as a VFW analysis points out, there is nothing in the text of the bill that adds $400 billion in new spending or spending that is unrelated to veterans.
If you are a veteran or a supporter of the troops, it should make you angry that these Republicans are playing politics with the health of sick and dying veterans. It is a reprehensible and extremely cynical political move.
It’s also a bad move.
The Republican two-steppers have painted themselves into a corner. In fact, the move is politically unwinnable. (Ted Cruz is particularly adept at getting the party into no-win situations.) On one hand, the party is taking a public relations beating from all across the political spectrum for the move. Veterans organizations, progressives, and even a large segment of Republicans are unhappy that the rogue faction has blocked the popular, bipartisan bill.
On the other hand, if Republicans give in and vote to pass the bill without changing addressing their (alleged) concerns next week, it will be apparent to everyone (who is paying attention) that they’ve been lying all along and that their opposition was based in sour grapes rather than any real principle.
It’s interesting to note that it was not just the usual MAGA suspects who voted no. The complete list of Republicans who played politics with disabled veterans by switching votes includes John Barrasso, Marsha Blackburn, Roy Blunt, Mike Braun, Bill Cassidy, John Cornyn, Tom Cotton, Kevin Cramer, Ted Cruz, Joni Ernst, Deb Fischer, Bill Hagerty, Josh Hawley, Cindy Hyde-Smith, Jim Inhofe, Ron Johnson, John Kennedy, Roger Marshall, Mitch McConnell, Rob Portman, Ben Sasse, Tim Scott, Rick Scott, Dan Sullivan, and Todd Young. Sens. Sens. Steve Daines and Roger Wicker also voted against the July bill after not voting in June.
Blocking the bill was an exercise in hubris that may backfire. Democratic odds of holding the Senate have been edging up in recent weeks as primary voters picked a slew of bad candidates. With the exception of Ron Johnson, the no-voters are in safe seats, but Republican opposition to health care for veterans may not help Republican candidates who are in close races. At this point, Republicans cannot write off any races if they want to regain control of the Senate.
More importantly, the fake claims about nonexistent budget gimmicks and spending undercut Republican credibility with voters… at least with those engaged voters who take the time to determine the truth.
The falsehoods are even more disturbing because most of the senators telling these blatant lies claim to be Christian. They’ll argue that Democrats can’t be Christian because they support abortion while blowing past the ninth commandment at warp factor nine.
As Herman Cain used to say, “They think you’re stupid.”
It’s up to you to show them otherwise.