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Defense

The Veterans-Benefits Bandwagon Is Getting Mighty Crowded

Lawmakers are scrambling to show their fiduciary support for the troops, risking a morass in the process.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

photo of Stacy Kaper
January 29, 2014

Congress's effort to repeal its own $6 billion cut to veterans benefits has a bizarre problem: It has too much support.

Democrats and Republicans are united in their pledge to retract the cuts—which they put in place as part of December's budget deal—and they're equally insistent that they'll get it done soon. But when lawmakers are asked exactly how they plan to make the repeal happen, their unity splinters.

Several senators have introduced legislation to restore the funding, and each would love to get credit for getting it done.

 

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a liberal independent from Vermont and chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, is pushing a broad veterans measure that would restore veterans' pensions and expand their access to health care and educational benefits.

Sanders got a leg up Wednesday when Majority Leader Harry Reid took steps to put that legislation in line for Senate debate. And Sen. Dick Durbin, Reid's right-hand man, said he anticipated Sanders's bill would move to the floor soon.

Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, however, have their own measure to restore the funding. That bill is more narrow, as it would simply repeal the cuts without offsetting the spending with decreases elsewhere.

And the duo—both Democrats in red states facing reelection challenges in the fall—also got a boost from a powerful legislator this week. Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin said Tuesday he hoped that measure would soon move to the Senate floor, where members could debate various funding ideas.

Levin said in an interview that he is not in competition with Sanders, but thinks a vote first in his committee on a repeal of the cost-of-living-adjustment cuts without an offset could help grease the skids for action in the Senate.

"I want to do it one step at a time, because I want to see if the committee will adopt that bill because there is a whole lot of pay-fors that are in different bills.… It would be better to leave that debate for the floor," Levin said.

The turmoil is over a 1-percentage-point cut in the annual COLA in benefits for military retirees under age 62.

Both parties and both chambers supported the December budget deal that included the cuts, but after veterans mass-mobilized against them, Congress got cold feet. $600 million of the cuts—less than one-tenth of the original total—were repealed earlier this year as part of the omnibus spending bill.

While Democrats weigh their options, well-placed Republicans are weighing in with their wishes.

Sen. John McCain, who is good friends with the Michigan Democrat, said Wednesday he believes that Levin and the Armed Services Committee will lead the charge on the fix.

"Armed Services, yes, that's my belief, I know Carl wants to do that," he said.

McCain said the repeal bill could easily be rolled into the annual defense authorization bill, where there would be plenty of money to offset the cost. "We haven't made a decision whether it will be a separate bill or just make it part of the defense authorization, but it will repealed," he said. "I don't think it requires [a pay-for].… In the whole defense authorization you could easily find that money."

This article appears in the January 30, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.

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