By Donald Judd and Aaron Pellish, CNN
Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough on Sunday pushed back against Senate Republicans blocking passage of the administration-backed PACT Act, warning that if the chamber passes GOP senators’ proposed amendment to the legislation aimed at providing care for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits, “we may have to ration care for veterans.”
McDonough told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” that a proposed amendment from Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey would put “a year-on-year cap” on what the VA can spend to care for veterans suffering from exposure to burn pits and sunsets the fund after 10 years, telling Tapper, “I can’t, in good conscience, do that, because the outcome of that will be rationing of care for vets, which is something I just can’t sign on.”
“This has been the No. 1 priority for President Biden,” McDonough said, touting executive action steps the Biden administration has already taken to remove the burden of proof for veterans seeking care for toxic exposure. “I guess what I’d say is, these folks have waited long enough. Let’s just get it done, and also let’s not be for a proposal that places artificial caps on year by year, and then functionally, at the end of those 10 years, makes this fund go away. Let’s not sign up to that, because at the end of the day, the risk of that is going to be rationing of care to veterans.”
On Saturday, McDonough visited people demonstrating at the Capitol in support of the legislation, delivering pizzas to the group, who pledged they would stay overnight. President Joe Biden, who remains in isolation at the White House after testing positive again for Covid-19 on Saturday, told the group via a FaceTime call, “I’ll tell you what, as long as I have a breath in me, I’m going to fight to get this done — as long as I have a breath in me.”
Earlier on “State of the Union,” Toomey had defended his decision to lead a group of Republican senators in delaying passage of the bill.
The Pennsylvania Republican accused Democrats of attempting to “sneak in something completely unrelated that they know could never pass on its own” while reiterating that he and his fellow Republicans are “not opposed” to the core provisions of the bill.
“[Democrats] know they’ll unleash their allies in the media and maybe a pseudo-celebrity to make up false accusations to try to get us to just swallow what shouldn’t be there,” Toomey said in an apparent reference to comedian Jon Stewart, a longtime advocate for victims of toxic burn pit exposure who has been vocal since the procedural vote failed.
Stewart, who criticized Toomey last week for voting against the bill, pledged Sunday to join advocates for the legislation camped out on the US Capitol steps and refuse to leave until the Senate approves the bill.
“We will do our best to make sure that justice is done and that these veterans get — not an entitlement — but what they’ve earned and that this country has to live up to,” he told NBC.
Toomey’s opposition to the legislation centers on the accounting categorization of certain spending in the bill, which he said would “allow our Democratic colleagues to go on an unrelated $400 billion spending spree.” He said he wants a vote on his amendment to change the spending categorization before he agrees to allow the bill to come to a vote.
“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. “And we shouldn’t allow it.”
When pressed on the text of the legislation that indicates the allocated money has to be spent on health care for veterans who were injured from toxic burn pit exposure, Toomey dismissed that interpretation of the bill.
“This is why they do this sort of thing,” said Toomey, who is not running for reelection this year. “Because it gets very deep in the weeds and very confusing for people very quickly. It’s not really about veteran spending. It’s about what category of government bookkeeping they put the veteran spending in.”
In response to Toomey’s comments, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, told CNN’s Jim Acosta Sunday evening that Democrats are not pulling “a fast one.”
“I don’t agree with his assessment, and I think that veterans who serve this country are pretty important because they fight for our freedoms, and they make sure that we are safe and secure,” Tester said.
“And when it takes time to take care of them, we got to step up and do that. That is the cost of war,” he added.
This story has been updated with additional reaction.
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CNN’s Sonnet Swire and Sarah Fortinsky contributed to this report.