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Senate passes long-sought bill to help veterans affected by burn pits

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, speaks during a news conference on lowering gasoline prices for Americans at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, April 28, 2022. Leaders are hoping to pass legislation dealing with gas prices before the end of May but would need Republican cooperation in the Senate to do so. Photographer: Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, speaks during a news conference on lowering gasoline prices for Americans at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, April 28, 2022. Leaders are hoping to pass legislation dealing with gas prices before the end of May but would need Republican cooperation in the Senate to do so. Photographer: Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

 (CNN) -- The Senate voted Tuesday night to pass a long-sought bipartisan legislation to expand health care benefits for millions of veterans exposed to toxic burn pits during their military service, sending the bill to President Joe Biden to sign into law.

Passage of the bill marks the end of a lengthy fight to get the legislation through Congress, as veterans and their advocates had been demonstrating on Capitol Hill for days. Many veterans were allowed into the Senate gallery to watch the final vote on Tuesday evening.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced after reaching the deal with Republicans who had blocked the bill from advancing last week while they sought to add cost-controlling amendment votes to the package.

"I have some good news, the minority leader and I have come to an agreement to vote on the PACT Act this evening," 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 bill, called the Honoring our PACT Act, was approved by the House of Representatives in July.

The bill widely expands health care resources and benefits to those exposed to burn pits and could provide coverage for up to 3.5 million toxic-exposed veterans. It adds conditions related to burn pit and toxic exposure, including hypertension, to the Department of Veterans Affair's list of illnesses that have been incurred or exacerbated during military service.

The legislation had been held up in the chamber since last week when more than two dozen Republicans, who previously supported the measure, temporarily blocked it from advancing.

Sen. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, rallied fellow Republicans to hold up the legislation in exchange for amendment votes, specifically an amendment that would change an accounting provision. Toomey had previously said he wanted an amendment vote with a 50-vote threshold.

Tuesday's final vote followed votes on three amendments with a 60-vote threshold. Toomey's amendment, which would have made a change to a budget component of the legislation, failed as expected, in a vote of 47-48.

Last week's surprise move by Republicans led to a swift backlash among veterans and veterans' groups, including protests on the US Capitol steps over the weekend and early this week. Comedian and political activist Jon Stewart -- a lead advocate for veterans on the issue -- took individual GOP senators to task for holding up a bill that had garnered wide bipartisan support in earlier votes.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell defended his party's handling of the legislation at a news conference on Tuesday.

"Look, these kind of back and forths happen all the time in the legislative process, you've observed that over the years," he said. "I think in the end, the veterans service organizations will be pleased with the final result."

This story and headline have been updated with additional developments Tuesday.

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