In a partial solution to a nagging Pentagon problem, disabled military veterans will have cuts to their pensions restored as part of the omnibus spending bill introduced Monday evening.
"We came up with the fix for the disability and the survivor part, which is a down payment while they get ready to do comprehensive reform and get ready to do the presidential commission," Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski said ahead of the bill's release Monday. "So we made a down payment for the neediest, which were the disabled of working age and the survivors."
Pension changes that were made for other veterans in last year's budget agreement will be addressed later this year by the Senate Armed Services Committee and other panels.
The reductions to disabled veterans' pensions were part of a larger cut included in the budget deal reached by Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan last month. The provision would decrease the annual cost-of-living adjustment for working-age military retirees by a total of 1 percent over 10 years.
The inclusion of disabled veterans has drawn strong criticism from veterans' groups, members of Congress in both parties, and even Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Ryan and Murray quickly backed away from the inclusion of veterans who retired for medical reasons, referring to it as a mistake.
The move to reverse cuts for disabled military retirees as part of the omnibus spending bill addresses less than a tenth of the original cut of approximately $6 billion. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., estimated that a provision to eliminate the COLA cuts for disabled vets, coupled with a reversal of the decrease in annuities for military survivors, would cost approximately $593 million.
"So you still have got the vast majority of people who served their country, have been receiving payments or expect payments, receiving quite a bit of reductions," Sessions said.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte also spoke out Monday against a handful of defense-related cuts in the budget agreement, including the decrease in the cost-of-living adjustment for veterans who retired due to injury.
"The more I press the Pentagon for answers, the more I learn how egregious the military benefit cuts are in the budget deal," the New Hampshire Republican said. "The cost-of-living adjustment cuts unfairly shortchange military retirees, military survivors, and the combat-injured to pay for more Washington spending."
Ayotte is one of a handful of senators seeking to link a repeal of the military pension cuts to a three-month extension of long-term unemployment insurance. The measure would be paid for "within the budget window," Ayotte and other senators said in a joint release.
Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, who led an effort by Republican senators to attach an amendment reversing the cuts to the budget agreement but were ultimately unsuccessful, said the decision to reverse the pension cuts for disabled veterans would not keep him from voting for the appropriations bill.
"It may take a little steam out of our effort, but I just think it is so unfair to change the rules for veterans who have already completed their part of the bargain that I think eventually sometime in the next year or so, get the whole thing corrected," Wicker said.
Congress has plenty of options for rolling back the majority of the cuts. Members have filed about a dozen bills in less than a month to restore the COLA funding in its entirety.
Some, including a proposal by Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and Kay Hagan, D-N.C., push for an outright repeal of the cuts. Others, including Rep. Dan Maffei, D-N.Y., and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., are seeking to offset funding to reverse the cuts by closing a tax loophole used by offshore corporations.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the chief of staff for the Army, said last week that he has "not thought about it being linked to anything else," when asked at the National Press Club about Rep. Darrell Issa's proposal to tie the funds to changes in the postal system.
"It's time for us to look at pay and compensation."¦ I believe if we continue on the path that we're on, that we'll have to reduce our end strength even more," he added.
His comments are similar to those made by Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey, who both declined last month to say where the Defense Department will recommend cuts from their budget for the 2015 fiscal year, or if that could include compensation.
The two Defense officials backed the budget agreement, pitting them against veterans' groups, including the Military Coalition and the Military Officers Association of America, which continue to lobby lawmakers to restore the full $6 billion in cuts.
And senators don't expect to let the issue go. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said members will push to repeal the full cuts "until we get it fixed," adding that he hopes a solution will be found by the November elections.
But the issue could stretch beyond that. The Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, which was supposed to have recommended changes to the military's compensation and retirement system by May, had its deadline extended until February 2015. And the Senate Armed Service Committee plans to review all changes to military pensions before the cuts go into effect in December 2015.
Sarah Mimms contributed