Democrats Set Trap for Republicans on Veterans’ Benefits

Both parties are racing to reverse $6 billion in military retirements cuts, but first they plan to trade plenty of partisan blows.

WASHINGTON - APRIL 26: Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AK) talks with reporters after voting on the US Troop Readiness, Veterans' Health And Iraq Accountability Act at the US Capitol April 26, 2007 in Washington, DC. The Senate voted 51-46 in favor of the emergency appropriations bill which provides $100 billion the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with a non-binding timeline for combat troop withdrawal beginning in October 2007. President George W. Bush has promised to veto the bill. 
National Journal
Stacy Kaper Jordain Carney
Feb. 7, 2014, 7:57 a.m.

The Sen­ate fight over vet­er­ans’ be­ne­fits is about to be­gin in earn­est, and it’s about to get ugly.

The Sen­ate on Monday will take an ini­tial pro­ced­ur­al vote on le­gis­la­tion from Demo­crat Mark Pry­or of Arkan­sas that would re­store $6 bil­lion in fund­ing to work­ing-age mil­it­ary re­tir­ees. The be­ne­fits were cut as part of Decem­ber’s bi­par­tis­an budget deal, but the re­duc­tions sparked a massive polit­ic­al back­lash, leav­ing law­makers rush­ing to re­verse them.

But while top Demo­crats are hop­ing to move Pry­or’s meas­ure, they’re as­sum­ing it will fail to get the 60 votes needed to clear clo­ture, ac­cord­ing to a seni­or party aide. His bill meas­ure lacks a way to off­set the be­ne­fits cost, and for Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans, that’s a fatal flaw.

Demo­crats, however, have an al­tern­at­ive op­tion for when Pry­or’s pro­pos­al falls: a sep­ar­ate, broad­er bill from Bernie Sanders of Ver­mont that would not only re­verse the $6 bil­lion in be­ne­fits but also ex­pand ac­cess to oth­er vet­er­ans’ be­ne­fits, such as health care and edu­ca­tion. Sanders’s bill would cost $24 bil­lion; the meas­ure would off­set $20 bil­lion of that by tak­ing money from the Over­seas Con­tin­gency Op­er­a­tions Fund, a pool of money for the Afghan and Ir­aq wars that is ex­empt from Con­gress’s self-im­posed budget-cap laws. The oth­er $4 bil­lion, Sanders said, would come from oth­er funds un­der the com­mit­tee’s jur­is­dic­tion.

But that mech­an­ism won’t pass muster with Re­pub­lic­ans, either, who ar­gue that it’s an end-run around budget rules and does not rep­res­ent real-life fisc­al dis­cip­line. And so Sanders’s bill faces long odds in the Sen­ate and has vir­tu­ally zero chance of passing the House.

“The pay-for has turned out to be more of a stick­ing point than I thought,” said Sen. Ro­ger Wick­er, R-Miss. “Much as I would like to solve the COLA prob­lem, I’m not will­ing to add to the na­tion­al debt.”

So why are Demo­crats tee­ing up a string of bills they know won’t pass?

Ob­vi­ously, they — like Re­pub­lic­ans — want to undo the pen­sion cuts, and these pro­pos­als rep­res­ent their pre­ferred meth­od for do­ing it.

But Demo­crats are also in­ter­ested in for­cing the GOP to con­tinu­ally vote down vet­er­ans’ fund­ing, seek­ing to har­ness the mael­strom raised by the cuts and steer it to­ward their rivals.

Re­pub­lic­ans, for their part, ar­gue they’re the ones who are sin­cere about re­peal­ing the cuts — they just won’t sac­ri­fice budget dis­cip­line to do it. “As I’m sure you know, Demo­crats are a little late to this ef­fort. Re­pub­lic­ans have mul­tiple bills that would fix the COLA prob­lem without adding to the de­fi­cit,” said an aide to Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte wants to tie re­vers­ing the cuts to stop­ping what she views as tax fraud. The New Hamp­shire Re­pub­lic­an’s plan aims to bring in $20 bil­lion by mak­ing it harder for some — namely, un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants — to claim a child tax cred­it.

Sen. Richard Burr is push­ing a broad­er vet­er­ans’ be­ne­fits pack­age sim­il­ar to Sanders’s, but the North Car­o­lina Re­pub­lic­an’s meas­ure would likely use Ayotte’s fund­ing mech­an­ism.

Demo­crats, mean­while, have their own budget-neut­ral al­tern­at­ives — al­beit ones that Re­pub­lic­ans will likely find un­pal­at­able.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Rep. Dan Maf­fei have in­tro­duced le­gis­la­tion in their re­spect­ive cham­bers to swap the roughly $6 bil­lion in cuts with clos­ing a tax loop­hole for off­shore cor­por­a­tions.

In the middle is Sen. John Mc­Cain, who is still eye­ing the $550 bil­lion Na­tion­al De­fense Au­thor­iz­a­tion Act as the most likely vehicle. Con­gress al­ways man­ages to pass the yearly spend­ing vehicle, which Mc­Cain sees as large enough to provide ample op­por­tun­it­ies to off­set the cost.

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