Congress Extends Sequester to Pay for Vets Benefits

The measure awaits President Obama’s signature.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 21: Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee's Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) questions Apple senior executives about the company's offshore profit shifting and tax avoidance in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill May 21, 2013 in Washington, DC. A Congressional report released yesterday said that Apple, America's most profitable technology company, used a complex system of international subsidiaries and tax avoidance efforts to shift at least $74 billion out of the reach of the Internal Revenue Service between 2009 and 2012. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
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Stacy Kaper
Feb. 12, 2014, 10:46 a.m.

By a 95-3 vote, the Sen­ate on Wed­nes­day ap­proved a House-passed that would un­wind $6 bil­lion in cuts to vet­er­ans’ be­ne­fits from last year’s budget deal that proved to be a polit­ic­al fiasco for all in­volved.

The con­clu­sion of the con­gres­sion­al battle to un­wind the cuts cul­min­ates sev­er­al days of flip-flops from Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans. Law­makers ul­ti­mately con­cluded it was shrewder to put to rest a rising polit­ic­al vul­ner­ab­il­ity with vet­er­ans than con­tin­ue petty-look­ing squabbles over off­sets that are lost on the pub­lic at large. Demo­crat­ic Sen. Thomas Carp­er of Delaware, and Re­pub­lic­ans Sens. Dan Coats of In­di­ana and Jeff Flake of Ari­zona voted against the bill.

Flake said that he be­lieved that the cut in be­ne­fits was mod­est — far smal­ler than what was re­com­men­ded by the Simpson-Bowles de­fi­cit re­duc­tion plan. And in a speech on the Sen­ate floor earli­er Wed­nes­day, he said that he voted against last year’s budget deal be­cause the spend­ing cuts did not go far enough.

Flake said that a vote against restor­ing the COLA cuts is not tan­tamount to turn­ing against the troops.

“The mil­it­ary is at a cross­roads, fast grow­ing be­ne­fits are threat­en­ing to dis­place in­vest­ments in read­i­ness of our armed ser­vices,” he said. “So I would en­cour­age my col­leagues to take a hard look at the fisc­al mess we face be­fore we vote to roll back one of the few de­fi­cit re­duc­tion meas­ures that the pres­id­ent and Con­gress has agreed to.”

A spokes­wo­man for Coats said he voted against the bill be­cause of how the spend­ing would be off­set. Coats, the spokes­man said, did not trust that the Sen­ate would stick to the ad­di­tion­al se­quester cuts. Coats in­stead fa­vors a spend­ing off­set offered by New Hamp­shire Re­pub­lic­an Kelly Ayotte, which would make it more dif­fi­cult to qual­i­fy for a child tax cred­it — par­tic­u­larly for un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants.

Carp­er’s of­fice did not im­me­di­ately ex­plain the reas­on for his “no” vote.

But with 95 Sen­at­ors vot­ing in fa­vor of the meas­ure, the takeaway is clear: Don’t mess with vets, es­pe­cially in an elec­tion year.

The le­gis­la­tion that now heads to Pres­id­ent Obama’s desk for his sig­na­ture, would pay for restor­ing a 1-per­cent­age-point ad­just­ment to cost-of-liv­ing in­creases in mil­it­ary re­tir­ees’ pen­sions by ex­tend­ing the man­dat­ory se­quester cuts an ad­di­tion­al year.

Sen­ate Demo­crats had spent much of Tues­day in­sist­ing it was im­per­at­ive to pass a “clean” bill without an off­set ASAP, ar­guing that vet­er­ans had already “paid in full” their debt to so­ci­ety, even though none of the off­sets be­ing dis­cussed would have touched oth­er vet­er­ans’ be­ne­fits or even come out of the De­fense De­part­ment.

They were push­ing a Sen­ate bill from em­battled Arkan­sas Demo­crat Mark Pry­or that would have un­wound the cuts without pay­ing for them.

But between the House’s un­deni­ably over­whelm­ing vote on its bill Tues­day — 326-90, in­clud­ing 120 Demo­crats — and the two parties’ in­ab­il­ity to agree on amend­ments to the Pry­or bill, Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship ab­ruptly changed course Tues­day, schedul­ing a vote on the House bill.

A few hours ahead of the vote, Demo­crats ap­peared to be caught off-guard.

Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee Chair­man Carl Lev­in said he didn’t know if he would sup­port the House pay-for and needed to re­view the de­tails, in­clud­ing how he had voted on it pre­vi­ously.

“I don’t know,” he said. “There’s a little un­cer­tainty in my mind as to which par­tic­u­lar ex­ten­sion this is.”

Lev­in said Demo­crats gen­er­ally still pre­ferred a bill without a pay-for and that his per­son­al pref­er­ence was one that would close off­shore tax havens.

“I think most Demo­crats want a clean bill. If our choice is a good pay-for”¦ I would clearly vote for that”¦. If it’s a pure COLA res­tor­a­tion, I’m all in fa­vor for that, but in terms of the oth­er op­tions, I just have to with­hold judg­ment un­til I know more about it.”

The House pay-for had got­ten mixed re­views from Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans on Tues­day, with many con­tinu­ing to push for a pro­pos­al from New Hamp­shire Re­pub­lic­an Kelly Ayotte to close the child tax cred­it to un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants.

“I think se­quest­ra­tion was a ter­rible mis­take to start with,” said Ari­zona Re­pub­lic­an John Mc­Cain on Wed­nes­day.

As Demo­crats tested the wa­ters with Re­pub­lic­ans over the pay-for fight, it ap­peared last week that the GOP would balk at even de­bat­ing a bill that didn’t have a pay-for. But Re­pub­lic­ans re­versed course on Monday, join­ing with Demo­crats un­an­im­ously to take up the Pry­or bill, which was left in the dust by Wed­nes­day.

In the end, with a snowstorm threat push­ing up a loom­ing re­cess, law­makers gave up their pay-for fights and just wanted to check the box, claim vic­tory, and go home.

“My in­clin­a­tion is, I just want to solve this prob­lem,” said Maine in­de­pend­ent An­gus King on Wed­nes­day when he had joined in a Demo­crat­ic press con­fer­ence de­cry­ing at­tempts to pay for the le­gis­la­tion the pre­vi­ous day.

“And the House has now re­cessed, so if we do something dif­fer­ent, it gets delayed,” he said. “Let’s do it.”

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