Amid protests, Senate passes health care for vets exposed to toxic burn pits

(WASHINGTON) — After a series of delays and emotional protests, the Senate on Tuesday night approved a bill that will help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.

The Senate began voting on the PACT Act around 5 p.m., with votes on three Republican amendments before a vote on final passage of the bill, which was 86-11. None of the proposed amendments passed.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on the floor called the passage a “wonderful moment, especially for all the people who made this happen.”

Just before the legislation passed, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who helped lead the Democratic effort, could be heard saying “I’m so proud” to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jon Tester of Montana. The two embraced in a hug.

A group of Democrats were set to hold a press conference later Tuesday night following the vote.

The PACT Act had initially passed the Senate earlier this year. But after a quick fix in the House required the bill to be voted on again, 26 Republican senators changed their votes and blocked swift passage of the act last week — sparking outrage among Democrats and veterans groups.

Comedian and activist Jon Stewart has become the face of this legislation, joining veterans in protest outside the Capitol for the last several days. He’s harshly criticized Republicans — who in turn cited concerns about Democratic spending maneuvers — and demanded action from lawmakers.

“America’s heroes who fought in our wars outside sweating their a—- off with oxygen, battling all kinds of ailments” while Republican senators were sitting “in the air conditioning walled off from any of it,” Stewart said during a press conference in front of the Capitol building on Thursday. “They don’t have to hear it, they don’t have to see it. They don’t have to understand that these are human beings.”

Stewart was in the chamber Tuesday night for the vote, along with about 50-75 vets and supporters of the bill. He is expected to join Democrats as they address reporters.

He sat above in the gallery and was seemingly overcome with emotion for a moment after the vote. He appeared to choke up while the clerk read the names of the Senators who voted yes.

When the vote was called, he grabbed his chest. “Hallelujah” and “yeah” were also shouted from observes in the gallery.

Republicans had said they did not object to the new funding for veterans in the proposal but wanted the opportunity to modify a so-called “budget gimmick” they say could be exploited by Democrats.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., has led the GOP group in opposition, insisting on an amendment to change language in the bill that he said could free up $400 billion in existing funds already being used for veterans by shuffling the money inside the budget to use for unrelated purposes.

“What matters to a veteran whose ill because of a toxic exposure is that the money is there to cover what he needs, that’s what he should be concerned about and that will be there,” Toomey said Tuesday. “What I am trying to limit is the extent that they could use a budget gimmick to reclassify spending and go on an unrelated spending binge.”

Republicans attempted to close this perceived budget loophole during a Tuesday night vote, but the amendment failed to pass.

Two other amendments from Sens. Rand Paul and Marsha Blackburn also failed. Paul’s amendment aimed to reduce aid to other countries besides Israel over the next 10 years to offset some of the bill’s costs, while Blackburn’s amendment proposed allowing toxic-exposed veterans to go directly into community care.

Schumer on the floor called Tuesday’s development “good news.”

“Our veterans across America can breathe a sigh of relief,” he said. “The treatment that they deserve and have been denied by the VA because of all kinds of legal barriers and presumptions will now be gone.”

ABC News’ Trish Turner contributed to this report.

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