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House passes bill designed to help veterans exposed to toxins during service

Big differences remain with less-expensive Senate measure

House Veterans' Affairs Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., said the strong support from veterans would give the House bill a chance for Senate passage.
House Veterans' Affairs Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., said the strong support from veterans would give the House bill a chance for Senate passage. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House voted 256-174 Thursday to pass a bill that would overhaul benefits for veterans exposed to toxic substances during their service, but the many differences with the Senate version of the measure raises questions about whether it has a chance of being enacted into law.

The bill received support from 34 Republicans despite the criticism from most of their party members that it was too expensive.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi scoffed at Republicans who refused to support the bill sponsored by House Veterans’ Affairs Chair Mark Takano, D-Calif., because of budget concerns.

“It’s a cost of war,” Pelosi said at her Thursday press conference. “For the Republicans to go to the floor and say their veterans really don’t want this help with their health because it’s going to cost money and they’re more concerned about the budget … than they are about their health, oh really? You just gave tax cuts in 2017 to the richest people in America. Tax cuts for the rich, cancer for our veterans. That’s how we see this discussion and this debate.”

Takano said after the vote the Senate would find the votes to pass the House bill if it came to the floor because more than 40 prominent veterans organizations support it. Takano said he was willing to go to conference on the bill, but that a Senate floor vote left open to amendments would be quicker.

“There’s no reason not to act on what we got,” Takano said. He said he’d like to see the process done by Memorial Day.

The Senate in February passed a less expensive bill sponsored by Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., who called his bill an incremental step and said his committee is working on additional legislation.

The House legislation would establish that several respiratory diseases and cancers are directly linked to military toxic exposure, a move that would make it easier for veterans to get disability benefits through the VA.

The bill would increase direct benefit payments by $208 billion over a decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. A provision of new health care benefits, financed through the annual appropriations process, and VA administrative costs could require another $114 billion.

The Senate bill would expand health care to more veterans who served in areas with known toxic exposure, but wouldn’t provide disability compensation. It would cost $1 billion over a decade.

But House Democrats say the Senate bill wouldn’t help enough veterans — just 16,000 out of the 3.5 million potentially eligible Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. The White House also supports the House bill.

The House vote came after lawmakers adopted several amendments Thursday morning, including one by North Carolina Democratic Rep. Deborah Ross that would require the Defense Department to report on the chemicals used on military installations other than aqueous film-forming foam, and any recommendations about expanding eligibility for the VA disability registry to individuals exposed to such chemicals.

The House also adopted California Democratic Rep. Raul Ruiz’s amendment that would require the VA to ensure that a family member or designated individual can update the burn pit registry if a person on the registry dies; and one from Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, that would require the Veterans Affairs Department to report quarterly to Congress on each reported case of a veteran’s burn pit exposure.

Lindsey McPherson and David Lerman contributed to this report.

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