Veterans Pensions Bill Advances Into Political War Zone

WASHINGTON - APRIL 25: U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AK) talks with the news media after a meeting with U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales at his office on Capitol Hill April 25, 2007 in Washington, DC. Gonzales made no comments to the news media after the meeting but Pryor said that he told the attorney general that it would be best if he resigned as the top law enforcement official. 
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
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Stacy Kaper
Feb. 10, 2014, 5:14 p.m.

Cav­ing to over­whelm­ing pres­sure from vet­er­ans’ lob­by­ing, the Sen­ate took steps Monday to­ward un­wind­ing a con­tro­ver­sial cut in vet­er­ans pen­sions that has made law­makers from both polit­ic­al parties vul­ner­able to at­tacks.

By a vote of 94-0, the Sen­ate ap­proved a mo­tion to pro­ceed to a bill from em­battled Arkan­sas Demo­crat Mark Pry­or that would re­store a $6 bil­lion cost-of-liv­ing ad­just­ment for mil­it­ary re­tir­ees. The con­tro­ver­sial cut was in­cluded in last year’s bi­par­tis­an budget deal and has haunted law­makers ever since.

The Pry­or bill would not off­set the budget hole it would cre­ate, but Re­pub­lic­ans who ini­tially planned to fili­buster cal­cu­lated it would be too dan­ger­ous to vote against al­low­ing a de­bate on re­peal­ing the cuts. Their anxi­ety was re­flec­ted in the fact that no one voted against mov­ing the bill for­ward.

In­stead, the strategy is to try to pres­sure Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id in­to al­low­ing them to of­fer amend­ments to pay for the le­gis­la­tion. (The meth­od has proved fu­tile for the minor­ity in the past, but Re­pub­lic­ans are bank­ing on it provid­ing them polit­ic­al cov­er.)

Many Re­pub­lic­ans have ral­lied around a pro­pos­al from New Hamp­shire Re­pub­lic­an Kelly Ayotte that would off­set the $6 bil­lion cost by clos­ing the child tax cred­it to un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants.

Demo­crats have ranged from not want­ing to off­set the le­gis­la­tion, to look­ing to close off­shore tax loop­holes as pro­posed by New Hamp­shire Demo­crat Jeanne Shaheen, to a broad­er be­ne­fits bill from Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bernie Sanders that would rely on sav­ings from the wars in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan.

But neither party has offered a pay-for that is amen­able to the oth­er side, leav­ing the res­ol­u­tion far from clear.

The House GOP, mean­while, huddled late Monday and emerged of­fer­ing a debt-ceil­ing deal that would in­clude re­vers­ing the con­tro­ver­sial COLA cuts. The pro­pos­al would off­set the cost by ex­tend­ing man­dat­ory se­quest­ra­tion for an ad­di­tion­al year. Re­id has ar­gued that the debt-ceil­ing in­crease must be clean, but it is un­clear where Demo­crats would come out on a pack­age that re­versed the COLA cuts.

Al­though it is not yet clear how Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans can come to­geth­er on a plan to undo the cuts, sev­er­al sources on and off Cap­it­ol Hill track­ing the is­sue say they ex­pect law­makers to even­tu­ally get it done.

“The fix is in,” said Steve Bell, a seni­or dir­ect­or of eco­nom­ic policy with the Bi­par­tis­an Policy Cen­ter who op­poses re­vers­ing the cuts, de­scrib­ing the ac­tion as a “little tiny feath­ery touch.”

“Who wants to face a bar­rage of paid ads this Novem­ber with the [Vet­er­ans of For­eign Wars] and the Amer­ic­an Le­gion and Dis­abled Amer­ic­an Vet­er­ans and all those folks out there say­ing, “˜We have men and wo­men in harm’s way and dy­ing and it’s a slap in the face to our vet­er­ans’?” he asked rhet­or­ic­ally.

The cuts do not kick in un­til late 2015, and some law­makers such as Sen. John Mc­Cain have ar­gued that Con­gress could eas­ily un­wind them in the massive $550 bil­lion an­nu­al de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill, where there would be ample de­fense dol­lars to off­set the cost.

But vet­er­ans groups are pound­ing law­makers hard on the is­sue, ar­guing that mil­it­ary mem­bers need peace of mind now that their pen­sions will be pro­tec­ted.

Vet­er­ans rep­res­ent­at­ives are vent­ing frus­tra­tion that law­makers are “play­ing polit­ics” by com­ing up with pay-fors they know are ob­jec­tion­able to the op­pos­ite party in an ef­fort to score polit­ic­al points rather than reach­ing across the aisle to settle the is­sue.

“Vets are cer­tainly used to be­ing polit­ic­al pawns, but they are not very happy about it.”¦ We are see­ing that hap­pen­ing on this now,” said Alex Nich­olson, the le­gis­lat­ive dir­ect­or for the Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan Vet­er­ans of Amer­ica.

Nich­olson said the mad­den­ing part is that Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans are talk­ing only to them­selves.

“It’s be­come ap­par­ent to us that there is not a lot of talk­ing back and forth dir­ectly among of­fices in try­ing to work out a solu­tion that is bi­par­tis­an and polit­ic­ally vi­able,” he said. “That’s been one of the most frus­trat­ing things in this whole epis­ode. It seems that Re­pub­lic­ans are work­ing in a Re­pub­lic­an silo and the Demo­crats are work­ing in a Demo­crat silo and every­one is try­ing to get the vets groups on board with their pro­vi­sion. But at the end of the day “¦ if you don’t have the sup­port of the lead­er­ship in the Sen­ate, then it’s not go­ing to go to the floor. There’s been a lot of rhet­or­ic and not a lot of stra­tegic think­ing about what is ac­tu­ally real­ist­ic about what is go­ing to get 60 votes and put on the floor.”

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