WASHINGTON — Comedian and activist Jon Stewart returned to Washington on Monday, holding a rally in front of the U.S. Capitol to prod recalcitrant Senate Republicans into finally passing a bill that would extend treatment to soldiers exposed to toxic chemicals.
“This is the lowest hanging fruit of a functioning society. Like, if we can’t do this, the rest of us have no shot,” Stewart said, depicting the stalled bill as a symptom of deepening political dysfunction. “This is the canary in the coal mine.”
Behind him stood veterans and their families, including Susan Zeier, the mother-in-law of Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, who died of lung cancer at the age of 39 two years ago. The Department of Veterans Affairs denied him the kind of benefits it extends to soldiers, and their families, when they are injured on active duty. The bill is named after Robinson, who left behind a 9-year-old daughter.
“Senators lie, veterans die,” said a sign held by one of the attendees behind Stewart. The sign brandished by another simply listed the names of the 25 U.S. senators, all of them Republicans, who stymied passage last week.
Stewart hoped his presence would break the impasse before legislators left on their customary August vacation. By turns angry and exasperated, he highlighted the seemingly uncontroversial quality of the legislation. “This isn’t like the Democrats snuck in ‘abortion for all’ into a gay pride bill,” the former “Daily Show” host joked to Yahoo News after the rally was concluded.
The imperiled legislation, also known as the PACT Act, would allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to expand health care services for service members exposed to dangerous chemicals from so-called burn pits, where garbage was incinerated, with the help of jet fuel, during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At least nine respiratory cancers are believed to be potentially caused by breathing in the particulate matter emitted by the burn pits.
“Passage of the PACT Act is the highest priority in the entire veterans’ community,” legislative official Jeffrey Steele of the American Legion told Yahoo News.
The Senate had initially passed the bill in June with broad bipartisan support, but the removal of a single sentence about taxation required a new vote, setting up last week’s surprise defeat. In a surprise move that stunned veterans and their supporters, 25 Republicans in the GOP who had previously supported the bill decided to keep the measure from advancing.
“This is bullshit,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a supporter of the act, said at a rally last Thursday, following the development. Stewart’s fiery speech at the same rally quickly became an internet sensation. He is a longtime supporter of veterans’ issues and fought for passage of the Zadroga Act (also sponsored by Gillibrand), which created a compensation fund for first responders sickened from working at Ground Zero after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“It was the original burn pit,” Stewart said of the ruined World Trade Center, whose collapse released a similar multitude of toxic chemicals. The difference, he said, was that Ground Zero was the product of a terrorist attack, while the burn pits were the result of careless practice.
“The contracts that ran the burn pits did it to them,” he said. “Not because technology didn’t exist not to do it. But because it was cheaper. ‘And they’re just soldiers. Who gives a shit?’”
Republicans have maintained that the bill is too expensive. Some believe the move last week was little more than a show of frustration after a surprise announcement of a $700 billion reconciliation package that would address President Biden’s priorities on climate change and other health care expenses.
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., a leader of the recent Republican opposition to the PACT Act, said he would vote for the bill as long as the Senate also approved an amendment he introduced to fix what he has described as a “budget gimmick” that would, in his view, allow Democrats to spend billions on issues unrelated to veterans’ care.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough has disputed Toomey’s characterization, pointing out that his proposed changes would put a ceiling on how much can be spent on care per year — and end all spending on burn pit care after 10 years, forcing Congress to either do away with the program or renew it through a new vote.
A vote on Toomey’s amendment is expected this week. The veterans who gathered on Capitol Hill vowed to hold rallies until the PACT Act was passed. “We think that Congress should not go anywhere for August recess until this bill gets done,” one of the speakers who followed Stewart said. “We’re going to stay. They need to stay.”