Caving to overwhelming pressure from veterans' lobbying, the Senate took steps Monday toward unwinding a controversial cut in veterans pensions that has made lawmakers from both political parties vulnerable to attacks.
By a vote of 94-0, the Senate approved a motion to proceed to a bill from embattled Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor that would restore a $6 billion cost-of-living adjustment for military retirees. The controversial cut was included in last year's bipartisan budget deal and has haunted lawmakers ever since.
The Pryor bill would not offset the budget hole it would create, but Republicans who initially planned to filibuster calculated it would be too dangerous to vote against allowing a debate on repealing the cuts. Their anxiety was reflected in the fact that no one voted against moving the bill forward.
Instead, the strategy is to try to pressure Majority Leader Harry Reid into allowing them to offer amendments to pay for the legislation. (The method has proved futile for the minority in the past, but Republicans are banking on it providing them political cover.)
Many Republicans have rallied around a proposal from New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte that would offset the $6 billion cost by closing the child tax credit to undocumented immigrants.
Democrats have ranged from not wanting to offset the legislation, to looking to close offshore tax loopholes as proposed by New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, to a broader benefits bill from Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders that would rely on savings from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But neither party has offered a pay-for that is amenable to the other side, leaving the resolution far from clear.
The House GOP, meanwhile, huddled late Monday and emerged offering a debt-ceiling deal that would include reversing the controversial COLA cuts. The proposal would offset the cost by extending mandatory sequestration for an additional year. Reid has argued that the debt-ceiling increase must be clean, but it is unclear where Democrats would come out on a package that reversed the COLA cuts.
Although it is not yet clear how Democrats and Republicans can come together on a plan to undo the cuts, several sources on and off Capitol Hill tracking the issue say they expect lawmakers to eventually get it done.
"The fix is in," said Steve Bell, a senior director of economic policy with the Bipartisan Policy Center who opposes reversing the cuts, describing the action as a "little tiny feathery touch."
"Who wants to face a barrage of paid ads this November with the [Veterans of Foreign Wars] and the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans and all those folks out there saying, "˜We have men and women in harm's way and dying and it's a slap in the face to our veterans'?" he asked rhetorically.
The cuts do not kick in until late 2015, and some lawmakers such as Sen. John McCain have argued that Congress could easily unwind them in the massive $550 billion annual defense authorization bill, where there would be ample defense dollars to offset the cost.
But veterans groups are pounding lawmakers hard on the issue, arguing that military members need peace of mind now that their pensions will be protected.
Veterans representatives are venting frustration that lawmakers are "playing politics" by coming up with pay-fors they know are objectionable to the opposite party in an effort to score political points rather than reaching across the aisle to settle the issue.
"Vets are certainly used to being political pawns, but they are not very happy about it."¦ We are seeing that happening on this now," said Alex Nicholson, the legislative director for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Nicholson said the maddening part is that Democrats and Republicans are talking only to themselves.
"It's become apparent to us that there is not a lot of talking back and forth directly among offices in trying to work out a solution that is bipartisan and politically viable," he said. "That's been one of the most frustrating things in this whole episode. It seems that Republicans are working in a Republican silo and the Democrats are working in a Democrat silo and everyone is trying to get the vets groups on board with their provision. But at the end of the day "¦ if you don't have the support of the leadership in the Senate, then it's not going to go to the floor. There's been a lot of rhetoric and not a lot of strategic thinking about what is actually realistic about what is going to get 60 votes and put on the floor."