Senate Republicans in a Box on Veterans Benefits

US Senator Lindsey Graham speaks as he takes part in a press conference with unseen US Senator John McCain at the US Embassy in Kabul on January 2, 2014. A decision to release jailed Taliban militants further aggravated US-Afghan relations as pressure mounts for the two countries to sign a deal allowing some American soldiers to stay after 2014. The plan to free 88 insurgent suspects from Bagram jail has outraged US military officials and senators as final negotiations are underway on the long-delayed Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA).
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
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Stacy Kaper
Feb. 11, 2014, 5:12 p.m.

Sen­ate Demo­crats are de­term­ined to get a bill re­vers­ing $6 bil­lion in con­tro­ver­sial cuts to vet­er­ans be­ne­fits through the cham­ber this week without off­set­ting the cost. Their mes­sage: Vet­er­ans have “paid in full” their debt to the na­tion and shouldn’t be used as budget pawns.

The ef­fort is in sharp de­fi­ance of a ma­jor­ity of Re­pub­lic­ans who ar­gue that the cost of re­vers­ing the cuts in pen­sion be­ne­fits should be off­set in or­der to keep in­tact the bi­par­tis­an budget agree­ment reached last year.

Prov­ing that a bi­par­tis­an pay-for is achiev­able, the House passed a bill Tues­day, 326-90, that would pay for re­peal­ing the cuts in vet­er­ans be­ne­fits by ex­tend­ing man­dat­ory se­quest­ra­tion cuts an ad­di­tion­al year. The meas­ure has sup­port from 120 Demo­crats.

But the House pro­pos­al was shot down im­me­di­ately by Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, and re­ac­tion was mixed among Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans, with some cit­ing fears that pledges to make cuts later can eas­ily be broken.

“That’s not an ideal pay-for, in part be­cause it is so dis­tant,” said Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. “The prom­ise of dis­tant fu­ture spend­ing cuts is not at all op­tim­al.”

Break­ing from the now-in­fam­ous tra­di­tion of pre­vent­ing Re­pub­lic­ans from of­fer­ing amend­ments, the Sen­ate is ex­pec­ted to ac­tu­ally al­low a vote on a pay-for favored by Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans, ac­cord­ing to sen­at­ors and aides in­volved. A vote on the pay-for from Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hamp­shire that would close the child tax cred­it to un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants could come as soon as Wed­nes­day.

But without Demo­crat­ic sup­port, the meas­ure is doomed to fail. Un­less Demo­crats sud­denly change their tune and strike a com­prom­ise on an off­set, the build­ing dy­nam­ic is to put Re­pub­lic­ans in a box of hav­ing to either sup­port un­wind­ing the cuts out­right — as the bill sponsored by Sen. Mark Pry­or, D-Ark., would do — or be­ing forced to vote against it over the lack of off­set.

“I can’t vote for it” without a pay-for, said Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, R-S.C., a de­fense hawk. “That’s a false choice. I’m the guy that brought up the in­equity of the pay-for,” he said about us­ing the cost-of-liv­ing ad­just­ment cuts in the budget deal. “That is a lousy way; we ought to go out and shoot the per­son who came up with this idea, but you don’t want to break the Budget Con­trol Act, so let’s find an­oth­er pay-for…. I’ve nev­er been of the mind-set that in or­der to fix this you’ve got to break the budget agree­ment.”

The Sen­ate ma­jor­ity’s clear goal is to undo the 1-per­cent­age-point cut to COLA without an off­set, claim vic­tory, and go home to reap the polit­ic­al re­wards over the Pres­id­ents Day re­cess. This was something Demo­crats made plain on Tues­day.

“This bill is very, very simple to me — it’s a vet­er­ans’ bill,” said Sen. Mark Be­gich, D”‘Alaska, at a press con­fer­ence with Pry­or and sev­er­al oth­er Demo­crats spon­sor­ing the bill. “You are for vet­er­ans or you are not. That’s the vote we will be tak­ing. We made a prom­ise we need to keep…. These vet­er­ans have already paid the price.”

Demo­crat­ic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisi­ana echoed that sen­ti­ment, say­ing that get­ting hung up over an off­set is es­sen­tially dis­respect­ful to the troops.

“The 127 men and wo­men [from Louisi­ana] who have already paid for this bill with their lives in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan, and the thou­sands of vet­er­ans in Louisi­ana, are won­der­ing why we are de­bat­ing an off­set,” she said.

“Whatever was owed they have already paid, and that is the is­sue in this bill.”

Sen­ate Demo­crats could well get their way, giv­en how polit­ic­ally un­ten­able it is to take any vote that is equated with be­ing against vet­er­ans, par­tic­u­larly in an elec­tion year.

Re­pub­lic­ans last week had been ex­pec­ted to vote against even pro­ceed­ing to a de­bate on the Pry­or bill be­cause it lacked a pay-for, but they ab­ruptly changed course Monday and the cham­ber voted un­an­im­ously to pro­ceed to the bill.

“I’m for fix­ing the COLA first and fore­most,” said Sen. Johnny Isak­son, R-Ga. “The pay-for is a sec­ond­ary is­sue.”

Demo­crats are bank­ing on that pres­sure to score them an­oth­er win in the Sen­ate, leav­ing the ques­tion of how to work out a res­ol­u­tion with the House for an­oth­er day.

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