Democratic lawmakers and activists, including Jon Stewart, expressed their anger and frustration on Capitol Hill on Thursday toward Republican senators who blocked a bipartisan bill that would expand health care access for military veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.
“This is total bulls***,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said at a press conference outside the Capitol on Thursday morning. “This is the worst form of politicization I’ve literally ever seen. This is total BS. We had the votes.”
Last month, the Senate voted 84-14 in favor of the legislation, called the Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, which had passed the House earlier this year.
The measure would boost health care services and disability benefits for veterans suffering from exposure to the burn pits that were used in Iraq and Afghanistan to incinerate waste, with troops often using jet fuel as an accelerant.
Because of a parliamentary glitch involving a tax provision, it was sent back to the House, where it easily passed. But more than two dozen Republican senators, led by Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, voted Wednesday to delay its passage in order to cut some of the mandatory spending contained in the bill.
"My concern about this bill has nothing to do with the purpose of the bill," Toomey said, voicing his opposition to what he described as a "budgetary gimmick" that would allow $400 billion in additional spending.
The move outraged those, like Gillibrand, who had fought for its passage.
“We had strong bipartisan support for this bill,” Gillibrand said. “And at the eleventh hour, Sen. Toomey decides that he wants to rewrite the bill, change the rules and tank it. How he convinced 25 of his colleagues to change their vote, I have no idea. I mean, what the hell!”
"Make no mistake about it," Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said on the Senate floor Wednesday, shortly after the bill was blocked. "The American people are sick and tired of the games that go on in this body. They're sick and tired of us working for Democrats or working for Republicans and not working for the American people. But this is bigger than that."
Tester blasted the "cowardice" shown by Republicans who "chose today to rob generations of toxic-exposed veterans across this country of the health care and benefits they've earned and so desperately need."
"This is a sad day in the United States Senate," he said.
Stewart, who has spent the past few years advocating on behalf of military veterans, did not mince words while speaking alongside vets and their families at Thursday's press conference.
"So ain't this a bitch," Stewart said. "America's heroes, who fought in our wars, sweating their asses off outside with oxygen, while these motherf***ers sit in the air conditioning, walled off from any of it. They don't have to hear it. They don't have to see it. They don't have to understand that these are human beings.
"I'm used to the hypocrisy," he continued. "I'm used to the cowardice. The Senate is where accountability goes to die.
"I'm used to all of it," Stewart added. "But I'm not used to the cruelty."