Sen. Jon Tester discusses roadblocks for a bill to help veterans exposed to burn pits

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have long been working to pass the PACT Act, a key bill that would expand health care access to veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. But what was supposed to be easy passage on a bipartisan measure has turned into political football over spending. Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, who chairs the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Veterans groups and activists have long been pushing lawmakers to approve the PACT Act. It's a bill that would expand health care access to military veterans exposed to toxic burn pits in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan.

    But the bill is now stalled in the Senate. The measure passed the Senate earlier this year, but clerical issues have brought it back for another vote. And what was supposed to be an easy passage of a bipartisan measure has turned into a political football over issues of spending.

    Senator Pat Toomey was among the Republicans who voted against advancing the bill last week.

  • Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA):

    The Republican votes didn't change on the substance of the bill.

    Republicans have said we want an amendment to change a provision that has nothing to do with veterans' health care. The Republicans support this. The Democrats added a provision that has nothing to do with veterans health care, and that it's designed to change government accounting rules, so that they can have a $400 billion spending spree.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Leading the effort to get this bill across the finish line is Democratic Senator from Montana Jon Tester. He chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and he joins me now.

    Senator Tester, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    So, tell us what's going on here. Why has it been so hard to get this bill through? It's already unusual to see this kind of fight over a defense spending measure?

  • Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT):

    Yes, Judy, I just want to say one thing to correct the record. There's not one thing that's changed in this bill, with the exception of one line that was taken out of this bill that allowed the VA to buy out provider contracts. That line was taken out because it was a revenue-raiser.

    And there is nothing else that was changed in this bill since we voted on it on June 16, and it passed with 84 votes. So I want to be clear with that. And I will sit down with anybody that wants to go through this bill line by line and prove that.

    This is an issue that was brought up by Senator Toomey, who is a friend of mine and somebody who's very, very smart, that says, hey, I'm going to be leaving this place, and I want to control the appropriations process.

    So, regardless of what justification we're going to use — and, by the way, the secretary of the VA said, if we pass Toomey's amendment, it's going to be rationing of care to our veterans. That is the truth. And so we need to be able to meet the needs of our veterans. This bill as it was passed on June 16 is the same bill.

    And we need to get folks to come to the table and vote for it again, because health care that is delayed is health care that is denied. And we're denying health care on burn pits to our veterans all across this country. And it's why they're out here on the Capitol steps saying, enough is enough. The United States Senate, step up, pass this bill, get it to the president's desk.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Senator, what do you say to the Republicans, and we have heard it from Senator Toomey — you know this — and, by the way, we asked him to join us on the program tonight. His office said he was not able to do that.

    But they say this is all about how this is funded, that there's language in here about mandatory vs. discretionary. This is what they have told my colleague Lisa Desjardins. How do you respond to that?

  • Sen. Jon Tester:

    Well, there is. There's mandatory funding to take care of our veterans. That means it's mandatory funding to take care of our veterans.

    Congress can't come in and say, you know what, we're not going to fund this program anymore, or we don't have to do it year after year after year. So, in that vein, they're correct.

    But for the people who put their lives on the line and served this country in the military, isn't that a good thing? Shouldn't they have the certainty to know that their health care is going to be there next year? In the case of burn pits, where we have been at war for 20 years, and these folks are suffering cancers and lung diseases because of this, shouldn't Congress step up and take care of their end of the deal?

    I think they should. We did on June 16. But, unfortunately, now that's been forgotten. And I think that's a huge mistake, especially for our all-volunteer military and folks who are looking to sign up looking at this, going, wow, they're not living up to their end of the deal. Why would I want to join?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, they say what they're worried about is that items like computers, I.T., people who aren't really connected to burn pits are going to end up falling under this — these items going forward.

    They cite the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget saying this is not truly — this is not money that's — that should be mandatory.

  • Sen. Jon Tester:

    Judy, you have been around this place a lot longer than I have. And I will tell you that Congress makes a decision on how money is spent.

    And there's no if ands or buts about that. This amendment by Senator Toomey will take away that ability, and, by the way, will cap this program and terminate this program after 10 years. We all know that toxic exposures and health care doesn't end after 10 years. Just take a look at Agent Orange and the Vietnam War. Those folks are still dealing with that. This bill actually deals with those folks too, and radiation and others.

    So I think that the arguments ring hollow, as far as I'm concerned. And, look, we have to have some I.T. to take care of electronic health records and make sure that we get that done right. But that's a whole different pot of money. And the VA secretary just can't transfer that money because he wants to. There has to be congressional oversight. And there is.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Senator, quick two questions on this. Will there be a vote on it? And do you think the Republicans will be allowed to put their amendments out and that it'll pass despite that? And how are these veterans affected if this is delayed?

  • Sen. Jon Tester:

    If it's delayed, more veterans will continue to not have their health care addressed and die. And families that depend upon that veteran for the source of income won't be there anymore. So it puts families at risk too.

    I think there is an offer on the table right now to have a series of votes to get this bill passed. And, hopefully, the folks on the other side of the aisle, the Republicans will accept that deal, so we can get this bill passed tomorrow. I think we have waited far, far too long, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two other quick issues I want to ask you about, Senator, the status of the so-called Inflation Reduction Act that would address climate change, health care, and other things.

    Do you believe that's going to pass the Senate?

  • Sen. Jon Tester:

    I don't know.

    I mean, I'm so focused on the PACT Act, I haven't really had a chance to review that. I have seen some things in it I like, like debt reduction and allowing Medicare to negotiate for prescription drugs. And — but I have got to look at the whole thing before I decide. But I think that it's got a fair chance of passing. But I can't say it's an absolute.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And final question, Senator.

    You voted for a measure that would codify abortion rights across the nation nationally. It did not pass, though, because of the filibuster rule. Would you be willing to support a filibuster — or change in the filibuster rule in order to see that go?

  • Sen. Jon Tester:

    We have been here before. And I can tell you that the problem with changing the filibuster rule — and I think the proposal that we negotiated that I was a part of back in January really protected minority rights. But that proposal is not on the table now.

    If it was brought up again, I would support that. And, basically, what that says is, you debate and debate and debate and follow the two-speech rule, and then you vote with a simple majority. And I think that allows the minority to be able to control the floor for a long period of time and gives them real power.

    But, look, if we don't have something that's going to stand the test of time when it comes to any of these important issues, they will flop back and forth. And that's not healthy either.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, on the — on changing the filibuster, I hear you're not moving on that one.

  • Sen. Jon Tester:

    Well, look, if it's a change in the filibuster like I helped negotiate last January, I think that's a positive change that helps protect minority rights.

    And I think that's how it used to work in the old "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" days.


  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I don't quite remember those days, but I have been around a long time, Senator.

    Thank you very much, Senator Jon Tester of Montana. We appreciate it. Thank you.

Listen to this Segment