’Shouldn’t have been this hard,’ comedian and advocate Jon Stewart tells The Independent after the vote
The Senate passed legislation to provide health care to US military veterans who had been exposed to toxic burn pits less than a week after Republicans blocked the legislation many of them had previously supported.
Every senator who caucuses with Democrats and many Republicans voted for the legislation, with only 11 Senators voting against the bill. On Wednesday last week, 25 Republicans switched their vote on legislation they had previously supported when it had passed 84 to 14 in favour of the bill.
Comedian and veterans’ activist Jon Stewart was emotional when watching the vote from the gallery with veterans and their families. After the vote, he was on the verge of tears.
“Feels good, they earned it” he told The Independent. “Shouldn’t have been this hard.”
But the Senate needed to have another vote on the legislation after the House voted on the legislation on 14 July. Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, specifically objected to a “budget gimmick” that would allow $400bn to moved from discretionary to mandatory spending.
In turn, Mr Toomey led the charge and 25 Senators flipped their vote. In response, many veterans camped outside the US Capitol in protest of the Senate blocking the legislation. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York told The Independent she spoke to multiple Republicans over the weekend and “cleared up a lot of the misperception about where this vote is going and what it does.”
“I think we’re in a very good place,” she said.
Ms Gillibrand also defended the spending for benefits being put under mandatory, rather than discretionary, spending.
“You can’t be asking veterans to come to Washington every every year to beg for resources for their health care,” she said. “It has to be mandatory funding. That’s how it’s been written from the very beginning.”
President Biden celebrated the vote in a statement after the bill’s passage.
“For the millions of veterans who may have been exposed to harmful toxins, this bill means quicker access to health care services and other benefits. This could be the difference between life and death for many suffering from toxic related illnesses. For the spouse or child of a servicemember who died from toxic exposure, struggling to put their lives back together, this bill will be a lifeline. It means a monthly stipend for a surviving spouse and kids, and access to tuition benefits to help cover the cost of college. It means access to life insurance, home loan assistance, and help with health care. It matters.”
Veterans received frequent public support from Mr Stewart, an outspoken advocate for veterans since he left his hosting chair at The Daily Show.
“Now, if they were upset that they didn’t get their amendment procedure like okay, but I got people you know, the people down here with cancer. Like, I’m sorry that you didn’t get your amendment procedure but parliamentary procedure shouldn’t take precedence,” Mr Stewart told The Independent. “So now we’re taking a revote on the same f**ing bill.”
Mr Stewart also criticised the image of some Republicans on the Senate floor last week celebrating and fist-bumping after the legislation stalled.
“The whole thing was a gut punch for everybody,” he said. “The truth is everybody thought it was just a procedural vote, and they were coming down here to celebrate the end of a 15 year fight on behalf of men and women that have been poisoned and when it went the other way, and when there was a celebration about it, you know, it’s it’s devastating.”
Mr Stewart praised Democratic Senator Jon Tester, the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, as well as Republican Senators Jerry Moran, the ranking member, and Senator John Boozman of Arkansas for advocating for the bil.
At the same time, some Republicans sought to blame Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer for not allowing votes on amendments last week.
“As you know, I’m a veteran,” Senator Rick Scott of Florida, who served in the US Navy, told The Independent. “But I also don’t think Schumer I’d be using this building to increase discretionary spending.”
When asked why he voted on the bill earlier but then voted against it last week, Mr Scott said, “We didn’t have an opportunity. Chuck Schumer doesn’t allow amendments.”
Eric Golnick, a veteran who showed up on Capitol Hill for the vote, said that the most important matter was making sure that people got the care that they needed.
“ I care about my friends getting the help that they need, and not only them but their families getting the survivor benefits when they ultimately pass away from these incurable cancers,” he told The Independent. “That they’re actually getting taken care of. So that’s where the real anger comes from is making sure this should have been done many years ago.”