As Budget Deal Heads to Passage, Senators Are Already Eyeing Changes

Lawmakers are looking to tweak a pension provision and other measures next year.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 20: U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) (L), Chairman of the Senate Investigations Subcommittee, and U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) speak to reporters during a briefing on Capitol Hill, May 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. The briefing was held in advance of Tuesday's hearing on offshore profit shifting and the United States tax code.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms and Michael Catalini
Sarah Mimms Michael Catalini
Dec. 17, 2013, 2:40 p.m.

Though the Sen­ate is poised to pass the Bi­par­tis­an Budget Act on Wed­nes­day, law­makers in both parties are already work­ing to al­ter some of its pro­vi­sions in the weeks and months ahead.

The meas­ure is ex­pec­ted to pass hand­ily, send­ing a bill to Pres­id­ent Obama’s desk that will re­duce se­quest­ra­tion cuts by $63 bil­lion and fund the gov­ern­ment through Sept. 30, 2015. But that has not stopped law­makers from mak­ing pre­par­a­tions to tinker with it after it passes, most not­ably with a pro­vi­sion re­du­cing mil­it­ary pen­sions.

“Noth­ing is writ­ten in stone around here,” said Sen. Carl Lev­in, chair­man of the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee. “This is a budget. A budget could be amended next year.”

Lev­in said Tues­day that his com­mit­tee will look in­to nix­ing the cuts to mil­it­ary pen­sions be­fore they take ef­fect in 2016. Un­der the budget agree­ment, mil­it­ary re­tir­ees un­der the age of 62 will see re­duc­tions in cost-of-liv­ing ad­just­ments, but the com­mit­tee could al­ter or elim­in­ate that change, Lev­in said.

Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats in both cham­bers men­tioned con­cerns about the pen­sion pro­vi­sion when Sen. Patty Mur­ray and Rep. Paul Ry­an an­nounced the budget deal last week. But Lev­in’s com­mit­ment to a re­view eased some of that ten­sion. Re­pub­lic­an Sens. Rob Port­man and John Mc­Cain both said that the pos­sib­il­ity of chan­ging the pro­vi­sion played a role in their de­cision to vote to bring the budget deal to the floor.

“That gives some of us some com­fort,” Port­man said.

But ap­par­ently not every sen­at­or felt com­for­ted. Sen. Jeff Ses­sions, R-Ala., called a vote Wed­nes­day even­ing that would have al­lowed Re­pub­lic­ans to add an amend­ment to the budget deal elim­in­at­ing the mil­it­ary-pen­sions pro­vi­sion. The meas­ure failed, pre­dict­ably, on a nearly party-line vote in which only Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., broke with her caucus to sup­port the meas­ure.

Ses­sions said that he pushed for the vote as a protest of Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id’s de­cision to fill the amend­ment tree on the budget bill, pre­vent­ing Re­pub­lic­ans from fil­ing amend­ments of their own. The vote also forced Demo­crats who have said they are sym­path­et­ic to vet­er­ans fa­cing pen­sion cuts to choose between get­ting rid of those cuts and sid­ing with their lead­er­ship.

With the 46-54 vote, any changes to mil­it­ary pen­sions will likely be pushed in­to the New Year when the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee takes up the meas­ure. Lev­in and Mc­Cain cau­tioned Tues­day that the pen­sion changes may not dis­ap­pear. “I can’t prom­ise that we will re­peal it,” Mc­Cain said. But even Ry­an, who worked the pen­sion meas­ure in­to the fi­nal budget deal over Demo­crat­ic ob­jec­tions, has said that he is open to mak­ing changes.

“We delayed this pro­vi­sion so that it doesn’t take ef­fect un­til the year 2016, which gives Con­gress and the mil­it­ary com­munity time to ad­dress the broad­er com­pens­a­tion is­sue, in­clud­ing this pro­vi­sion, if people be­lieve there’s a bet­ter way to solve this prob­lem,” Ry­an told The Weekly Stand­ard.

The budget bill cleared its biggest hurdle on Tues­day, when the Sen­ate in­voked clo­ture on a 67-33 vote, set­ting up fi­nal pas­sage for Wed­nes­day. A dozen Re­pub­lic­ans joined Demo­crats to clear the 60-vote threshold, which was the last chance Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans had to de­rail the budget agree­ment.

A simple ma­jor­ity is needed to pass the meas­ure Wed­nes­day, and it is likely to hit that tar­get eas­ily. All 53 Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors and the two in­de­pend­ents who caucus with them sup­port the bill, and some Re­pub­lic­ans like Port­man have agreed also signed on.

But the budget deal isn’t set in stone, and with the specter of an­oth­er gov­ern­ment shut­down ef­fect­ively off the table, even sen­at­ors who sup­por­ted the deal are talk­ing about mak­ing changes when Con­gress re­turns in Janu­ary.

Many Demo­crats cite con­cerns that the fi­nal deal did not in­clude an ex­ten­sion of un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance be­ne­fits, which ex­pire shortly after Christ­mas. Re­id has said the Sen­ate will take up the is­sue after the hol­i­days.

Mur­ray ac­know­ledged be­fore Tues­day’s vote that not every­one got what they wanted in the fi­nal deal. “This deal is a com­prom­ise, and it doesn’t tackle every one of the chal­lenges we face as a na­tion. But that was nev­er our goal,” she said on the Sen­ate floor. “This bi­par­tis­an bill takes the first steps to­ward re­build­ing our broken budget pro­cess. And, hope­fully, to­ward re­build­ing our broken Con­gress.”

But with law­makers already plot­ting to al­ter some of the pro­vi­sions that al­lowed the com­prom­ise in the first place, that first step may be on shaky ground. Lev­in con­ceded Tues­day that changes to cer­tain as­pects of the budget bill could open up a Pan­dora’s box, al­low­ing Con­gress to re-lit­ig­ate the en­tire deal when it re­turns in Janu­ary. But the Michigan Demo­crat said that he wasn’t too con­cerned.

“It’s not — you know, there’s noth­ing here that’s per­man­ent,” he said.

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