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Rounds, Thune flip votes on toxic burn pit legislation

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Rounds for Senate
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U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-South Dakota.

South Dakota’s two U.S. senators switched their vote on a bill that expands Veterans Affairs benefits to veterans exposed to burn pits.

The two Republicans had previously voted against the measure. But on Tuesday evening they voted in favor of it.

Sen. Mike Rounds says he and other Republicans wanted two amendments to the bill — one to allow veterans to seek care outside the VA system and another that would allow for more congressional oversight.

Their efforts to amend the bill were unsuccessful.

“I know that we’re going to be back trying to fix this very shortly, because the VA is in no position to try and handle the influx. I think veterans are going to be very disappointed and frustrated with the fact that the VA won’t be able to handle it," Rounds says. "We want to be able to point to the fact that we know that and we tried to fix it. We didn’t have the votes to fix it, but we’re willing to go back and fix it once the demand is there and proven.”

Thune echoes Rounds’ support for amendments to the bill. Thune says he remains concerned the new expansion could overwhelm the VA.

"During consideration of the PACT Act in June, I was frustrated that Democrat leadership blocked the consideration of multiple amendments that I believe would have made this bill stronger for veterans of all generations and ensured that the VA was fully prepared for implementation," Thune said in a statement. "At the time, I was also concerned about the potential reduction in the VA’s facility footprint as a result of the Asset and Infrastructure Review — which has since been effectively dismantled — and I wanted to ensure that the VA’s operational capacity would not shrink during a time of increasing demand."

The bill passed 86 to 11 on Tuesday.

Thune's Democratic challenger in November, Brian Bengs, applauds the Republican's vote. Bengs — a retired lieutenant colonel who served 26 years in the Navy and Air Force — says the vote is better late than never.

"I commend Senator Thune for voting to give sick veterans health care with the PACT Act," Bengs said in a statement. "I don't know why he finally changed his mind after twice voting no, but all my fellow veterans and I appreciate his decision to support us."

The expanded benefits will aid veterans injured by exposure to toxins from Agent Orange in Vietnam to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The bill is expected to cost $280 billion over the next decade. The bill now heads to President Biden’s desk, where he's expected to sign it into law.

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.
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