Veterans Benefits in Jeopardy Over Senate Gridlock

Angry over amendments and spending, Republicans are threatening to block the bill.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 07: U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) holds a news conference to announce their proposed legislation to strengthen Social Security March 7, 2013 in Washington, DC. Sanders and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) are sponsoring the 'Keepping Our Social Security Promises Act,' which they say will increase payroll taxes on the wealthest and bolster Social Security without raising the retirement age or lowering benefits. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
National Journal
Michael Catalin and Stacy Kaper
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Michael Catalin Stacy Kaper
Feb. 25, 2014, 10:27 a.m.

The Sen­ate isn’t fin­ished apo­lo­giz­ing to vet­er­ans for Decem­ber’s bi­par­tis­an vote to cut re­tired sol­diers’ be­ne­fits.

The cham­ber Tues­day is sched­uled to take an ini­tial vote on a $21 bil­lion bill from Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., that would re­verse the last traces of the Decem­ber cut, and then go fur­ther to ex­pand vet­er­ans’ edu­ca­tion and health care be­ne­fits.

Those cuts — passed as part of the 2013 year-end bi­par­tis­an budget deal — would have slashed more than $6 bil­lion in spend­ing by lower­ing the cost-of-liv­ing be­ne­fits to med­ic­ally re­tired sol­diers. But des­pite the ini­tial sup­port, the cuts sparked a firestorm among vet­er­ans groups, and Con­gress has been scram­bling to undo them ever since.

Earli­er this month, the Sen­ate voted to re­store the cost-of-liv­ing be­ne­fits to mil­it­ary per­son­nel that have already re­tired. Sanders’ bill would re­store the cuts to those who entered the mil­it­ary this year.

But though many mem­bers have pro­claimed their ded­ic­a­tion to re­vers­ing the cuts, the bid to do so may soon stall.

Re­pub­lic­ans are wary of Sanders’ plan to ex­pand be­ne­fits, and they’re furi­ous over per­ceived strong-arm­ing from Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id.

And though a suf­fi­cient num­ber of Re­pub­lic­ans are ex­pec­ted to get on board for Tues­day’s vote to move the meas­ure a small step for­ward bill, it’s un­clear wheth­er that sup­port will con­tin­ue on fu­ture, more sub­stant­ive votes to pass the meas­ure.

Re­pub­lic­ans are in­sist­ing on of­fer­ing amend­ments of their own to Sanders’ bill, in­clud­ing a plan to re­place the meas­ure with smal­ler al­tern­at­ive from Sen. Richard Burr, the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs pan­el’s top Re­pub­lic­an.

The GOP plan would also strike down Sanders’ bill’s meth­od to pay for the ex­pan­ded spend­ing, which re­lies on sav­ing from the draw­down of the wars in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan. Re­pub­lic­ans say those sav­ings are “false,” ar­guing they don’t ac­tu­ally save tax­pay­ers any money. In­stead, Re­pub­lic­ans want to pay for it by tar­get­ing a child tax cred­it used by un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants, part of a pre­vi­ous meas­ure from New Hamp­shire Re­pub­lic­an Kelly Ayotte.

If Re­pub­lic­ans don’t get to vote on their amend­ments and if its spend­ing off­set isn’t changed, they’re threat­en­ing to block the meas­ure — even if it that po­s­i­tion leaves them at odds with most vet­er­ans groups.

“It would be very dif­fi­cult for people to vote against a vet­er­ans bill,” said Sen. Jim In­hofe, R-Okla. “But if they do it with the [war draw­down fund­ing] off­set there might be some of us who vote against it, and I might be one of them.”

Sen. John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz., said it is a slap that Re­pub­lic­ans are be­ing blocked from amend­ing such a massive bill for such a vi­tal group.

“I think I know as much about vet­er­ans as Mr. Sanders, with all do re­spect, yet I’m not al­lowed a single amend­ment to Mr. Sanders’ bill. That to me is an out­rage and an in­sult,” he said.

Mc­Cain ac­cused Re­id of try­ing to make Re­pub­lic­ans look bad by play­ing par­tis­an polit­ics and likely put­ting them in a po­s­i­tion to ul­ti­mately op­pose the bill.

“He’s just try­ing to em­bar­rass us,” Mc­Cain said. “It’s just a tac­tic.”

Mc­Cain said be­sides his op­pos­i­tion to Sanders pay-for, he also did not be­lieve the bill ad­dressed the most crit­ic­al is­sues such as re­form­ing the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment “which is not provid­ing the ser­vices to vet­er­ans that they de­serve,” he said.

“You talk to any group of vet­er­ans, they’ll tell you their No. 1 pri­or­ity is, not any­thing in Sen. Sanders bill, but the ser­vice and the abil­ity of them to get the be­ne­fits that they have already earned without this bill.”

The de­bate over the Sanders meas­ure comes as Sen­ate Demo­crats have said they plan to take up a spate of is­sues viewed as pos­sible elec­tion-year buoys for vul­ner­able in­cum­bents, set­ting up what some Re­pub­lic­ans view as an emer­ging trend whereby Re­id moves fa­vor­able Demo­crat­ic le­gis­la­tion to the floor, Re­pub­lic­ans cry out for amend­ments, Re­id fails to meet their de­mands, and the GOP ul­ti­mately blocks the meas­ure. This pat­tern played out over an ex­ten­sion of un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance be­ne­fits earli­er this year.

“We should be al­lowed to try and amend bills,” said Sen. Ron John­son, R-Wis. “That’s the way the Sen­ate should work. It hasn’t been work­ing that way.”

Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Mike Jo­hanns of Neb­raska, who sits on the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, said he is likely to vote to pro­ceed to the bill, but sus­pects Re­id won’t al­low Re­pub­lic­ans amend­ments.

“We’ll just see if Sen­at­or Re­id al­lows us to of­fer any amend­ments,” he said. “That’ll tell us wheth­er he’s ser­i­ous about this bill or not. I must ad­mit I’m sus­pi­cious that is gonna be just an­oth­er show vote as we head to­ward Novem­ber, but we’ll see.”

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