The Veterans-Benefits Bandwagon Is Getting Mighty Crowded

Lawmakers are scrambling to show their fiduciary support for the troops, risking a morass in the process.

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
Jan. 29, 2014, 3:04 p.m.

Con­gress’s ef­fort to re­peal its own $6 bil­lion cut to vet­er­ans be­ne­fits has a bizarre prob­lem: It has too much sup­port.

Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans are united in their pledge to re­tract the cuts — which they put in place as part of Decem­ber’s budget deal — and they’re equally in­sist­ent that they’ll get it done soon. But when law­makers are asked ex­actly how they plan to make the re­peal hap­pen, their unity splin­ters.

Sev­er­al sen­at­ors have in­tro­duced le­gis­la­tion to re­store the fund­ing, and each would love to get cred­it for get­ting it done.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a lib­er­al in­de­pend­ent from Ver­mont and chair­man of the Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, is push­ing a broad vet­er­ans meas­ure that would re­store vet­er­ans’ pen­sions and ex­pand their ac­cess to health care and edu­ca­tion­al be­ne­fits.

Sanders got a leg up Wed­nes­day when Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id took steps to put that le­gis­la­tion in line for Sen­ate de­bate. And Sen. Dick Durbin, Re­id’s right-hand man, said he an­ti­cip­ated Sanders’s bill would move to the floor soon.

Sens. Kay Hagan of North Car­o­lina and Mark Pry­or of Arkan­sas, however, have their own meas­ure to re­store the fund­ing. That bill is more nar­row, as it would simply re­peal the cuts without off­set­ting the spend­ing with de­creases else­where.

And the duo — both Demo­crats in red states fa­cing reelec­tion chal­lenges in the fall — also got a boost from a power­ful le­gis­lat­or this week. Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee Chair­man Carl Lev­in said Tues­day he hoped that meas­ure would soon move to the Sen­ate floor, where mem­bers could de­bate vari­ous fund­ing ideas.

Lev­in said in an in­ter­view that he is not in com­pet­i­tion with Sanders, but thinks a vote first in his com­mit­tee on a re­peal of the cost-of-liv­ing-ad­just­ment cuts without an off­set could help grease the skids for ac­tion in the Sen­ate.

“I want to do it one step at a time, be­cause I want to see if the com­mit­tee will ad­opt that bill be­cause there is a whole lot of pay-fors that are in dif­fer­ent bills.”¦ It would be bet­ter to leave that de­bate for the floor,” Lev­in said.

The tur­moil is over a 1-per­cent­age-point cut in the an­nu­al COLA in be­ne­fits for mil­it­ary re­tir­ees un­der age 62.

Both parties and both cham­bers sup­por­ted the Decem­ber budget deal that in­cluded the cuts, but after vet­er­ans mass-mo­bil­ized against them, Con­gress got cold feet. $600 mil­lion of the cuts — less than one-tenth of the ori­gin­al total — were re­pealed earli­er this year as part of the om­ni­bus spend­ing bill.

While Demo­crats weigh their op­tions, well-placed Re­pub­lic­ans are weigh­ing in with their wishes.

Sen. John Mc­Cain, who is good friends with the Michigan Demo­crat, said Wed­nes­day he be­lieves that Lev­in and the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee will lead the charge on the fix.

“Armed Ser­vices, yes, that’s my be­lief, I know Carl wants to do that,” he said.

Mc­Cain said the re­peal bill could eas­ily be rolled in­to the an­nu­al de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill, where there would be plenty of money to off­set the cost. “We haven’t made a de­cision wheth­er it will be a sep­ar­ate bill or just make it part of the de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion, but it will re­pealed,” he said. “I don’t think it re­quires [a pay-for].”¦ In the whole de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion you could eas­ily find that money.”

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