Democrats Set Trap for Republicans on Veterans’ Benefits

Both parties are racing to reverse $6 billion in military retirements cuts, but first they plan to trade plenty of partisan blows.

WASHINGTON - APRIL 26: Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AK) talks with reporters after voting on the US Troop Readiness, Veterans' Health And Iraq Accountability Act at the US Capitol April 26, 2007 in Washington, DC. The Senate voted 51-46 in favor of the emergency appropriations bill which provides $100 billion the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with a non-binding timeline for combat troop withdrawal beginning in October 2007. President George W. Bush has promised to veto the bill. 
National Journal
Jordain Carney and Stacy Kaper
Add to Briefcase
Jordain Carney Stacy Kaper
Feb. 7, 2014, 7:57 a.m.

The Sen­ate fight over vet­er­ans’ be­ne­fits is about to be­gin in earn­est, and it’s about to get ugly.

The Sen­ate on Monday will take an ini­tial pro­ced­ur­al vote on le­gis­la­tion from Demo­crat Mark Pry­or of Arkan­sas that would re­store $6 bil­lion in fund­ing to work­ing-age mil­it­ary re­tir­ees. The be­ne­fits were cut as part of Decem­ber’s bi­par­tis­an budget deal, but the re­duc­tions sparked a massive polit­ic­al back­lash, leav­ing law­makers rush­ing to re­verse them.

But while top Demo­crats are hop­ing to move Pry­or’s meas­ure, they’re as­sum­ing it will fail to get the 60 votes needed to clear clo­ture, ac­cord­ing to a seni­or party aide. His bill meas­ure lacks a way to off­set the be­ne­fits cost, and for Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans, that’s a fatal flaw.

Demo­crats, however, have an al­tern­at­ive op­tion for when Pry­or’s pro­pos­al falls: a sep­ar­ate, broad­er bill from Bernie Sanders of Ver­mont that would not only re­verse the $6 bil­lion in be­ne­fits but also ex­pand ac­cess to oth­er vet­er­ans’ be­ne­fits, such as health care and edu­ca­tion. Sanders’s bill would cost $24 bil­lion; the meas­ure would off­set $20 bil­lion of that by tak­ing money from the Over­seas Con­tin­gency Op­er­a­tions Fund, a pool of money for the Afghan and Ir­aq wars that is ex­empt from Con­gress’s self-im­posed budget-cap laws. The oth­er $4 bil­lion, Sanders said, would come from oth­er funds un­der the com­mit­tee’s jur­is­dic­tion.

But that mech­an­ism won’t pass muster with Re­pub­lic­ans, either, who ar­gue that it’s an end-run around budget rules and does not rep­res­ent real-life fisc­al dis­cip­line. And so Sanders’s bill faces long odds in the Sen­ate and has vir­tu­ally zero chance of passing the House.

“The pay-for has turned out to be more of a stick­ing point than I thought,” said Sen. Ro­ger Wick­er, R-Miss. “Much as I would like to solve the COLA prob­lem, I’m not will­ing to add to the na­tion­al debt.”

So why are Demo­crats tee­ing up a string of bills they know won’t pass?

Ob­vi­ously, they — like Re­pub­lic­ans — want to undo the pen­sion cuts, and these pro­pos­als rep­res­ent their pre­ferred meth­od for do­ing it.

But Demo­crats are also in­ter­ested in for­cing the GOP to con­tinu­ally vote down vet­er­ans’ fund­ing, seek­ing to har­ness the mael­strom raised by the cuts and steer it to­ward their rivals.

Re­pub­lic­ans, for their part, ar­gue they’re the ones who are sin­cere about re­peal­ing the cuts — they just won’t sac­ri­fice budget dis­cip­line to do it. “As I’m sure you know, Demo­crats are a little late to this ef­fort. Re­pub­lic­ans have mul­tiple bills that would fix the COLA prob­lem without adding to the de­fi­cit,” said an aide to Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte wants to tie re­vers­ing the cuts to stop­ping what she views as tax fraud. The New Hamp­shire Re­pub­lic­an’s plan aims to bring in $20 bil­lion by mak­ing it harder for some — namely, un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants — to claim a child tax cred­it.

Sen. Richard Burr is push­ing a broad­er vet­er­ans’ be­ne­fits pack­age sim­il­ar to Sanders’s, but the North Car­o­lina Re­pub­lic­an’s meas­ure would likely use Ayotte’s fund­ing mech­an­ism.

Demo­crats, mean­while, have their own budget-neut­ral al­tern­at­ives — al­beit ones that Re­pub­lic­ans will likely find un­pal­at­able.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Rep. Dan Maf­fei have in­tro­duced le­gis­la­tion in their re­spect­ive cham­bers to swap the roughly $6 bil­lion in cuts with clos­ing a tax loop­hole for off­shore cor­por­a­tions.

In the middle is Sen. John Mc­Cain, who is still eye­ing the $550 bil­lion Na­tion­al De­fense Au­thor­iz­a­tion Act as the most likely vehicle. Con­gress al­ways man­ages to pass the yearly spend­ing vehicle, which Mc­Cain sees as large enough to provide ample op­por­tun­it­ies to off­set the cost.

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