The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed one of the largest veterans bills in decades Tuesday night, less than one week after its future looked uncertain.
Dubbed the Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (PACT) Act, the bill will expand health care benefits for veterans who were exposed to toxic burn pits. It passed 86-11.
“I have some good news, the minority leader and I have come to an agreement to vote on the PACT Act this evening,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor. “I’m very optimistic that this bill will pass so our veterans across America can breathe a sigh of relief.”
The soon-to-be law will allow veterans to obtain disability and be compensated for their injuries without having to prove respiratory illnesses or cancer diagnoses were related to their service, according to the Associated Press.
Prior to the legislation, the outlet reported, the Department of Veteran Affairs rejected 70% of such claims “due to lack of evidence.”
The military uses burn pits to dispose of chemicals, medical and human waste, and other toxic materials.
Late last week, the legislation was nearly sidelined when it at first failed to garner the votes needed to advance to the Senate.
Comedian Jon Stewart, a leading veterans advocate, criticized the 42 Republican senators who voted against the act in a press conference last Thursday.
“Ain’t this a b—?” Stewart said in his remarks. “America’s heroes, who fought in our wars, outside sweating their asses off battling all kinds of ailments while these mother f—- sit in the air conditioning, walled off from any of it.” He added, “They don’t have to hear, they don’t have to see it, they don’t have to understand that these are human beings.”
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The former TV host, 59, continued, “These are men and women, husbands and fathers, sisters and brothers — but we just let stand outside in the heat when they can’t breathe.”
Veterans and proponents of the legislation have camped out at the Capitol since last week in protest, and were witnesses on Tuesday night when the bill at last prevailed.
“You can go home knowing the good and great thing you have done and accomplished for the United States of America,” Schumer told them.
“Congress did the right thing,” Stewart later tweeted.
The bill now goes to President Joe Biden, who is expected to sign it into law.
“I look forward to signing this bill, so that veterans and their families and caregivers impacted by toxic exposures finally get the benefits and comprehensive health care they earned and deserve,” Biden said, per the AP.