Alabama senators defend ‘no’ votes on ‘burn pit’ healthcare bill for veterans

Alabama’s two Republican senators this week are defending their votes against the largest expansion of veterans’ health benefits in over 30 years, as Alabama is one of just three states to see both Senators oppose the measure.

The measure overwhelmingly passed by the U.S. Senate on Tuesday. But Alabama Sens. Tommy Tuberville and Richard Shelby opposed the bill, and in statements to the media, claimed they are pro-veteran congressmen and criticized the so-called “burn pit” legislation as an expensive and ill-advised solution loaded with discretionary spending for “a liberal wish list.”

The legislation, approved with an 86-11 vote in the Senate, allocates a projected $280 billion over the next decade to treat veterans suffering ailments tied to the exposure to toxic substances from burning trash pits on military bases.

Democrats and other critics believe the Republicans who voted against the measure were playing politics with veterans’ health in retaliation for an unrelated deal by Senate Democrats to get a massive climate change measure approved.

More than 60 veterans’ organizations, including the VFW and American Legion, backed the measure.

“Their votes are a slap in the face of the sick veterans who need healthcare now,” said Devin Kennamer, deputy executive director with the Alabama Democratic Party. “Shelby and Tuberville pretend they love our veterans – and they’re happy to send them off to war, but when it comes to actually providing the healthcare they need after we sent them into harm’s way, they turned their back on those served us.”

Rare congressional split

The vote on the legislation also represented a rare split on a major issue among Alabama Republicans. While Tuberville and Shelby voted against the “Honoring our PACT Act of 2022,” three House Republicans – Reps. Robert Aderholt of Haleyville, Jerry Carl of Mobile and Barry Moore of Enterprise – voted to support a similar measure that passed out of the U.S. House last month. Also voting in support was Alabama’s lone Democratic Rep. Terri Sewell of Birmingham.

Alabama Republican Reps. Gary Palmer of Hoover, Mo Brooks of Huntsville and Mike Rogers of Saks voted against it.

Alabama Republicans who voted for the measure are not publicly criticizing their Senate counterparts.

Jerry Carl

U.S. Rep. Jerry Carl, R-Mobile, speaks with attendees during a Mobile Chamber breakfast on Wednesday, August 3, 2022, at the Battle House Renaissance Hotel & Spa in downtown Mobile, Ala. (John Sharp/[email protected]).

“They have reasons to vote the way they did,” Carl said. “I can only answer for myself.”

Carl, following an appearance in Mobile on Wednesday, said the potential high costs of the measure made it a “hard bill for me to vote in favor of” when it came before the House. The House voted 342-88 to support the measure on July 13.

Tuberville, in an Op-Ed last month, criticized the legislation for “being written so broadly with no cost offsets” and predicted it costing Americans at least “a trillion dollars in the long run.”

“It’s open-ended on what it costs, and I think that is why you saw as many negative votes as you did,” Carl said. “No one does not want to support (expanding health care benefits to veterans). But up in Washington, when it’s open-ended, it gets very creative in interpreting who wants to spend money.”

Tuberville also has said that he believes the legislation will lead to long waits for sick veterans to receive medical care at veterans’ hospitals, prevent veterans suffering from toxic burn pit ailments from receiving care at a local non-VA hospital, and prioritize union workers. Close to 80% of the VA’s workforce are bargaining unit employees.

“We could have done this a lot better … it could have been a lot better for veterans,” said Tuberville. “This place (Washington, D.C.) doesn’t do much other than throw money at a problem and hope that it works out.”

Carl said he wished the House would have waited until January, after the November elections, to vote. He said he anticipates Republicans gaining the majority in the House after the midterm elections.

“(Republicans) would have written it and made it better,” said Carl, but added that there “was no way I would vote against it.”

Flipped votes? Not Alabama

Jon Stewart

Veterans, military family members and advocates are joined by activist Jon Stewart as they call for Senate Republicans to change their votes on a bill designed to help millions of veterans exposed to toxic substances during their military service, at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, Aug. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)AP

Republicans were in a pickle after voting against the legislation on July 27, following impassioned criticism by former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, and images of angry veterans camping outside the Capitol. The July 27 vote was 55-42 for the PACT Act. Sixty votes were needed to pass the legislation.

Republicans, led by Pennsylvania Republican Senator Pat Toomey, complained last week about its high costs and alleged that Democrats inserted a provision to reclassify $400 billion in spending from discretionary to mandatory.

The July 27 vote was a reversal of an 84-14 vote to pass the burn pits bill in June. Shelby and Tuberville also voted against the measure at that time.

Shelby, in a statement, argued that the PACT Act could create spending opportunities on unrelated matters. Democrats have disputed those claims, saying the money will only be spent on veterans.

A spokeswoman for Shelby said the senator did not have any issues with the substance of what the bill would do for veterans. His only concern, the spokeswoman said, was with a “budgeting gimmick.”

“Throughout my career, I’ve remained a strong advocate for our veterans,” Shelby tweeted late Tuesday, saying the legislation would reclassify “nearly $400 billion in (Veterans Administration) funding” and allow the Democratic Party to “spend that on their liberal wish list.”

Democrats and veterans argued that most of the Republicans voting against the package on July 27 were doing so as political retaliation for a deal Senate Democrats reached on a massive climate change, health care and tax policy bill.

Phil Brown, director of the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute at Northeastern University in Boston, said he believes the GOP’s concerns about the bill’s cost “was mainly an excuse.” He said the real reason for the “No” votes were because “they did not like the fact that Democrats had a win.”

“The veterans were demonstrating in Washington and the (media) coverage of (Texas Senator) Ted Cruz fist bumping people after killing this bill was very bad press,” said Brown, referring to the Senate’s July 27 vote. “It was pretty interesting to see how quickly that turned around.”

Indeed, Cruz flipped on Tuesday, as did an overwhelming number of Republicans. Tuberville and Shelby, however, did not.

Only three states saw both senators vote against the legislation that extends medical care eligibility to an estimated 3.5 million veterans. Aside from Alabama, the two senators in Idaho and Utah joined in opposition.

Alabama, on a per capita basis, has more veterans than Idaho and Utah. An estimated 377,000 veterans live in the state, more than the number of veterans living in Idaho and Utah combined.

“I definitely think Republicans, including Alabama Republicans, have hurt themselves with their opposition given the visible protests from the veterans’ groups,” said Regina Wagner, assistant professor of political sciences at the University of Alabama.

Democrats are pouncing. Sewell, in a statement to AL.com, said she was “disappointed” in her Republican colleagues and accused them of playing “political games with the health and well-being of our veterans.”

Will Boyd, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate and who faces an uphill battle against Republican Katie Britt, said he would “fully support” similar health care legislation for veterans if elected.

A representative for the Britt campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

“There is no reason why men and women who chose to put their lives on the line for our country and freedoms should be denied the treatment they so desperately need,” said Boyd. “As the Democratic U.S. Senate nominee in a state with over 377,000 veterans, I fully support this measure and any other legislation that provides additional, high-quality healthcare to veterans who were exposed to toxic substances when they served.”

Tuberville and veterans

US-POLITICS-HEALTH-VIRUS

Republican Senator from Alabama Tommy Tuberville questions witnesses during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to examine the federal response to Covid-19 and new emerging variants on January 11, 2022 at Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Shawn THEW / POOL / AFP) (Photo by SHAWN THEW/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)POOL/AFP via Getty Images

For much of the 2020 Senate campaign, Tuberville touted veterans support for his candidacy. The issue was also one of the few that almost got him into political hot water during the GOP primary.

In August 2019, Tuberville famously said he was “pissed off” at then-President Donald Trump over the state of VA facilities nationwide. Campaign ads criticized Tuberville for slamming the former president, who was popular in Alabama.

Tuberville later said he wanted to meet with Trump and discuss the concerns about what he said were difficulties among Alabama veterans getting access at a VA facility.

“Veterans are my No. 1 priority,” he said during the campaign, and then vowed to give a portion of his Senate salary to veterans’ groups. He also vowed to show up during radio talk shows to give a portion of his Senate paycheck to a veterans’ widow, though that has not yet happened.

Tuberville’s pro-veterans’ foundation, ahead of the 2020 elections, was also the subject of scrutiny after it was revealed that less than one-third of its fundraising went to veterans’ groups.

A Tuberville spokeswoman said that the senator continues to make “significant donations” to his foundation, which was is taking the “appropriate steps of turning over the management of the foundation to a board and divested authority to make awards to veterans’ organization.”

The spokeswoman continued that it’s Tuberville’s understanding “that the board is in the process of evaluating candidates with an eye of making awards this fall.”

Tuberville’s office provided a list of bills that the first-term senator has worked on related to veterans’ care since he took office in early 2021. One bill increases the maximum life insurance coverage from $400,000 to $500,000 under the Service Members Group Life Insurance (SGLI) and Veterans Group Life Insurance (VGLI) programs. It would be the first coverage-cap increase for either plan since 2005.

Another bill that Tuberville’s office is touting would modify language used on official VA and Department of Defense forms to clarify information required when a service member elects to have their G.I. Bill benefit transferred to a dependent.

The senator’s office also says that Tuberville supports federal legislation to allow hyperbaric oxygen therapies as a treatment option for veterans suffering from PTSD and other brain injuries. He also backs legislation that allows families and beneficiaries of deceased veterans to reclaim defrauded dollars.

Political observers in Alabama do not believe Tuberville, or any other Alabama lawmaker voting against the PACT Act, will face political backlash.

“In terms of political fallout, the risks are practically zero,” said Steven Taylor, a political science professor at Troy University. “The odds of any single issue shifting the voter base are nonexistent.”

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