Angry over surprise Republican recalcitrance against a bipartisan bill to extend eligibility for veterans’ benefits, Senate Democrats Thursday threatened the equivalent of the nuclear option: delaying the start of the sacrosanct congressional August recess until the bill passes.
At an expletive-laden press conference with leaders of various veterans groups, Senate Democrats let loose at Republicans for voting to hold up a bill that would allow soldiers, sailors and airmen exposed to pits of burnt waste in combat zones to be covered by the Veterans Affairs health care system for related illnesses.
“This is total bullshit. This is the worst form of over politicization I’ve literally ever seen. This is total BS,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat.
“I’ve been in this business for 25 years, between the state legislature and here, and I have never seen anything that’s happened like happened yesterday,” said Sen. John Tester of Montana.
The press conference had been scheduled originally with the expectation it would be a victory lap for veterans groups, but late Wednesday the bill failed to clear a procedural vote in the Senate, where it needed the support of 10 Republicans. It got only eight, as many Republicans who had voted for the bill in a previous form voted to keep debate open and prevent a final vote.
The timing of those votes, coming almost at the same time as news broke that Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia (D) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had reached an agreement on a tax and climate change bill, led some to say Republicans were taking out their anger about the Manchin-Schumer bill on the unrelated veterans bill.
“Republicans now are holding basically helping the veterans hostage because they’re mad,” Manchin told reporters Thursday.
Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey categorically rejected that idea in a brief hallway interview with HuffPost.
“Let’s be very clear: that’s a lie. If anyone says that to you, they’re either very ignorant or they’re willfully blind,” Toomey said. “That’s just being dishonest, so let’s just be clear.”
Toomey said his objections were related to how the bill would be funded and that he made those objections known back in June.
“Now, how did I know on June 23 that Manchin and Schumer were going to have a deal that they’d announce on July 27?” he asked.
“Let’s be very clear: That’s a lie. If anyone says that to you, they’re either very ignorant or they’re willfully blind.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, said Congress should not leave for its traditional lengthy August break until the bill is passed. In the House, where the bill was passed on a hugely bipartisan 342-88 vote July 13, lawmakers are set to leave Washington Friday, but the Senate is not set to leave until next week.
“We stay until this is done. As long as Republicans keep trying to block this, we stay here, we keep meeting,” Brown said.
Toomey, who has Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s (Ky.) backing on his vet bill stance, said the impasse could be solved quickly.
“I don’t know how long they want to drag this out. This would pass this afternoon if they wanted to pass it this afternoon,” he said.
Every year, lawmakers use the threat of delaying or canceling August recess to try to get their way. And almost every year, that congressional equivalent of making the class stay after the last bell never comes to pass. If that happens again, lawmakers could try to take up the bill in the fall — though it’s unclear if being considered during the campaign season would help or hurt its chances.
Comedian Jon Stewart, a longtime veterans advocate who attended the Democratic press conference, gave his own rant about the impacts of the delay, calling senators “tortoises” who see no urgency because they don’t face the same challenges as regular folks.
“They never lose their jobs and they never lose their benefits and they never lose all those things,” Stewart said.
Referring to the veterans, though, Stewart said, “They’re not on Senate time. They’re on human time, cancer time.”
“Don’t you have families? Don’t you have people who are deciding how to live their last moments?” he asked.