Senate Democrats Pull Surprise Flip on Sequester, Veterans Benefits

Reid suddenly announces plan to vote on House bill.

Vietnam War veteran Bernie Klemanek of Louisa County, Virginia salutes with fellow veterans during a Veterans Day event at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall November 11, 2013 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
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Stacy Kaper
Feb. 12, 2014, 6:22 a.m.

Sen­ate Demo­crats ab­ruptly re­versed course Wed­nes­day morn­ing, an­noun­cing they would vote on the House bill to undo $6 bil­lion in cuts to vet­er­ans’ be­ne­fits later in the day. 

By agree­ing to vote on the meas­ure, Demo­crats are sig­nal­ing their ta­cit sup­port for the bill, mean­ing it will likely clear the cham­ber and head to Pres­id­ent Obama’s desk. The meas­ure would off­set the $6 bil­lion in spend­ing by ex­tend­ing the se­quester’s man­dat­ory spend­ing cuts for an­oth­er year.

The new­found sup­port is a sur­prise re­versal by Demo­crats, par­tic­u­larly after they spent Tues­day af­ter­noon de­clar­ing that vet­er­ans had already paid their debts in full to the na­tion. Con­gress, they said, should not waste time ar­guing over a way to off­set the le­gis­la­tion’s spend­ing, but in­stead should pass a clean bill.

A seni­or Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic aide said Demo­crats de­cided to bring up the House-passed bill be­cause they were un­able to reach an agree­ment with Re­pub­lic­ans on amend­ments to their own bill to re­store the be­ne­fits. That meas­ure, from em­battled Arkan­sas Demo­crat Mark Pry­or, would re­store the be­ne­fits without off­set­ting them and add the spend­ing to the de­fi­cit.

Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id had said “no” when asked at a press con­fer­ence Tues­day af­ter­noon if he would sup­port the House pay-for, be­fore call­ing Re­pub­lic­ans hy­po­crites. Re­id was angry that Re­pub­lic­ans had balked at ex­tend­ing the se­quester to fund an ex­ten­sion of the now-ex­pired un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance ex­pan­sion, but they now were open to the same mech­an­ism for fund­ing vet­er­ans be­ne­fits.

“That’s ac­tu­ally very in­ter­est­ing. We un­der­stand they are go­ing to pay-for the COLA.”¦ That pay-for, you re­mem­ber, that was for un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance ex­ten­sion. They didn’t like that, but now they like that. This shows the ab­surdity and lack of com­mon sense and reas­on that Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress have.”

What’s iron­ic is that Sen­ate Demo­crats ap­peared to have de­vised a path to pres­sure some Re­pub­lic­ans in­to vot­ing for the Sen­ate bill pushed by Pry­or that would re­verse the cuts without pay­ing for them, be­cause a hand­ful of Re­pub­lic­ans like Sen. John Mc­Cain and Johnny Isak­son in­dic­ated they would vote to re­verse the cuts even without a pay-for.

The House bill off­sets the cost of re­vers­ing the cuts by ex­tend­ing the se­quester an ad­di­tion­al year. It is ex­pec­ted to eas­ily pass the Sen­ate, which is eager to ad­journ early for Pres­id­ent’s Day re­cess and leave town early be­fore an ex­pec­ted snowstorm.

Demo­crats’ de­cision to take the House bill — which passed by an over­whelm­ing 326 to 90 Tues­day with sup­port from 120 Demo­crats — is an ac­know­ledg­ment that for once it is bet­ter polit­ics to re­solve the is­sue and pass something that would quickly be­come law, than to con­tin­ue fight­ing a los­ing pro­trac­ted battle.

Vet­er­ans or­gan­iz­a­tions have been fight­ing the cuts vo­ci­fer­ously and have put in­tense pres­sure on law­makers to un­wind them since they were in­cluded in last year’s budget agree­ment, ar­guing they are slap in the face to men and wo­men who risked their lives in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan.

Sarah Mimms contributed to this article.
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