The Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill on Thursday that enhances benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, expanding their opportunities to obtain free medical care and presuming that certain illnesses and cancers were linked to their exposure during their military service.
The legislation passed 84 to 14 with strong bipartisan support, and will return to the House for a final vote.
"If we can't get something done in a bipartisan way to help our veterans country, then gee whiz, something's the matter in the country, but we did," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a press conference Thursday, applauding his colleagues who helped the bill pass the Senate chamber.
"It used to just burn my rump that veterans in New York and elsewhere who knew they were exposed to these toxic materials had to fight the VA to get help, instead of the VA helping them," Schumer added.
Veteran advocacy groups have urged Congress to do more to support veterans suffering from burn pit exposure, and President Biden has suggested his late son Beau was affected by his exposure to burn pits.
Beau Biden died of brain cancer in 2015. While the president has said he isn't certain a burn pit caused his son's cancer, he pledged during his State of the Union address earlier this year to "find out everything we can."
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York didn't shy away from connecting burn pits to cancers on Thursday.
"These are benefits that these men and women earned," Gillibrand said. "They earned it through their blood, sweat and tears, through their extraordinary efforts for this country. And little did they know that the burn pits dug up around the bases where they served were emitting horrible toxins, which caused some of the worst cancers, from brain cancer to throat cancer to lung cancer to stomach cancer. And now they need our help."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement after the Senate vote that the House "will now move swiftly to take up this legislation and send it to President Biden's desk for his signature."
Burn pits were commonly used to destroy waste collected at military bases. In 2019, a Pentagon report said there were nine active military burn pits in the Middle East as of 2008, and a 2015 Pentagon inspector general report called it "indefensible" that U.S. military members were put at risk by exposure to them.
Melissa Quinn contributed to this report.