Fourteen Republican senators, including Mitt Romney and Rand Paul, have voted against providing healthcare and benefits to US veterans who came home from America’s post-9/11 wars sick and dying from rare cancers and respiratory illnesses.
On Thursday, the Senate passed the SFC Heath Robinson Honoring our PACT Act – a landmark bill that will presumptively link 23 conditions to a veterans’ exposure to burn pits while on deployment overseas.
Now, around 3.5 million US veterans who lived and worked next to the huge open-air pits will finally be given automatic access to healthcare and disability benefits if they develop one of these conditions on their return home.
The bill sailed through the Senate with largely bipartisan support, with 84 senators voting in favour of its passage.
All Democrats voted yes to passing the bill – but 14 Republicans voted no.
The senators who voted against were: Mitt Romney and Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Mike Rounds and John Thune of South Dakota, Richard Shelby and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, James Lankford of Oklahoma, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, and Mike Crapo and James Risch of Idaho.
Senators Steve Daines and Roger Wicker were absent from the vote.
Despite the efforts of the 14 Republicans, the bill is likely just days away from being signed into law.
It first needs to go back to the House for passage before it can be sent to the desk of President Joe Biden.
However, passage in the House is almost certain as all Democrats and 34 Republicans voted in favour of its passage back in March, sending it sailing over the threshold with a 256 to 174 vote.
In that vote, the only lawmakers voting no were also Republicans.
Among them was Rep Lauren Boebert, who was slammed for heckling as Mr Biden spoke about burn pits in his State of the Union address.
The Senate has modified the House version to create a phase-in period for illnesses presumptively linked to toxic exposure, meaning a new vote is needed in the House.
During America’s post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, huge open-air pits were used to burn mountains of trash including food packaging, human waste and military equipment on US military bases.
Thousands of US service members returned home from deployment and developed health conditions including rare cancers, lung conditions, respiratory illnesses and toxic brain injuries caused by breathing in the toxic fumes from the pits.
But, until now, the burden of proof has always been on veterans to prove their condition is directly caused by this toxic exposure and almost 80 percent of disability claims mentioning burn pits were turned down by the Department of Veteran Affairs.
The bill was renamed in March after the Sgt First Class Heath Robinson who died in May 2020 from a rare cancer caused by breathing in toxic fumes from burn pits while serving in Iraq in the Ohio National Guard. He was 39.
Two years on from his death, the bill passed on his daughter Brielle’s ninth birthday.
Susan Zeier, his mother-in-law, said that the bill’s passage means she now no longer needs to “carry Heath on my shoulders”.
Ms Zeier gave an emotional speech outside the Capitol after Thursday’s vote where she told how she has been wearing her son-in-law’s army jacket for the past four years to draw attention to the plight of veterans fighting for healthcare and disability access as she and other advocates lobbied the US government.
“I’ve been wearing this since the summer of 2018 and today, with this bill passing the Senate, I think it’s time to retire it,” she said.
“I no longer have to carry Heath on my shoulders while I’m advocating for all the other veterans who are out there sick and dying.”
Ms Zeier described her son-in-law as a “wonderful father” who was “always helpful and always generous” and fought his cancer “valiantly” to “survive as long as he could for his daughter”.