Senate Democrats are planning to push this month for full repeal of a reduction in cost-of-living adjustments for military retirees under age 62, but the issue of how the cost of the change will be offset remains in question.
“I’m going to try to do it as soon as possible,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said in an interview.
Senior Democratic aides said Reid and his team are focusing on the veterans benefit bill (S 1950) as a vehicle for floor action in coming weeks on a repeal of the military pensions provision. The move to expedited handling of the bill comes as both parties took opposing sides on offsets for several session-opening fiscal priorities.
The political perils of offsets were underscored by the hornet’s nest of opposition by veterans’ groups to the 1 percentage point cut in the annual adjustment for benefits for military retirees under age 62 in the bipartisan budget deal (PL 113-67). Many lawmakers now want to restore full benefits. The newly completed 2014 omnibus (HR 3547) contained a repeal of the COLA change for disabled veterans and survivors.
But the two sides disagree on offsets for the estimated $5 billion cost of ending the reduction in future benefits for other veterans.
It’s the latest in a series of pay-for fights that could erupt on the Senate floor in coming weeks. For example, Reid also has laid groundwork to force another procedural vote on a contentious clean three-month extension of expanded jobless aid (S 1845) sponsored by Jack Reed, D-R.I. Republicans defeated, 55-45, a vote to invoke cloture on the measure after demanding full offsets and simple-majority amendment votes.
Other battles loom over potential demands for offsets to pay for an extension of expired tax cuts (S 1859) and other proposals for business incentives. Similar GOP demands for spending cuts are expected to accompany the next proposal to suspend or increase the debt limit.
Democrats argue against offsets for emergencies like short-term jobless aid extensions and the 2013 disaster assistance law (PL 113-2) for Hurricane Sandy. To offset other bills, they argue for cutting defense, and delaying cuts in domestic programs. Many Republicans argue against exempting emergencies, and seek to shield the Pentagon and other programs.
In the House, Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has deferred to the Senate on some offset skirmishes. Boehner has urged the Senate to move first on a jobless aid extension, and he said Thursday said there was “still conversation going on” about the fate of the military retirees’ COLA reduction.”
The offset squabble will be renewed in the Senate, when lawmakers return from recess the week of Jan. 27.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., said he believed there would be strong support for the proposed expansion of veterans’ benefits. including more dental care and nursing home services, and for advance appropriations for mandatory veterans programs. The bill does not currently contain an offset, but Sanders said it could be offset by cuts in overseas contingency operations funds for the Pentagon and other agencies.
While veterans’ advocates are sure to support such enhancements, the measure faces likely push back from conservatives such as James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, ranking member on Armed Services, who have warned that OCO cuts undermine national security.
Instead of using OCO funds, Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada has promoted a GOP alternative (S 1931) with seven co-sponsors that would extend expanded jobless aid for three months and reverse the COLA cut for military retirees. It would be offset by increasing annual automatic spending cuts in some mandatory programs by 1.7 percentage points for nine years starting in fiscal 2015. The cuts would include wildlife restoration, highways and other programs, but would exclude the military and Medicare payments to health care providers.
Democrats say the Heller plan favors the Pentagon at the expense of non-defense programs. They have backed a Reid proposal that would extend broader jobless aid for 11 months and extend for a year through fiscal 2024 the sequester on some mandatory programs, including Medicare provider payments and the military.
Both parties are trying to build support during the recess for competing proposals to extend jobless aid and repeal the COLA cut.
Heller and a co-sponsor, Susan Collins of Maine, scored a victory when the American Legion endorsed their bill in a letter Friday. “This legislation offers a package that could pass with bipartisan support,” said Daniel M. Dellinger, national commander of the veterans’ group with 2.4 million members.
Louis J. Celli, the legion’s national legislative director, said the group likely would back parts of Sanders’ bill and support other proposals to end the COLA cut.
“We want full repeal. With regard to the pay-fors, we’re not going to get into how they’re going to pay for it,” Celli said.