What Will Congress Cut to ‘Support Our Troops’?

Lawmakers are scrambling to avoid veterans’ anger over spending cuts, but they can’t decide how to pay for it.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 07: U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) holds a news conference to announce their proposed legislation to strengthen Social Security March 7, 2013 in Washington, DC. Sanders and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) are sponsoring the 'Keepping Our Social Security Promises Act,' which they say will increase payroll taxes on the wealthest and bolster Social Security without raising the retirement age or lowering benefits. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
National Journal
Jordain Carney
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Jordain Carney
Jan. 20, 2014, midnight

Con­gress un­did some of its planned cuts to vet­er­ans’ be­ne­fits in the latest spend­ing bill, but it also left the vast ma­jor­ity of the re­duc­tions in place. And in so do­ing, it en­sured that the white-hot con­tro­versy over be­ne­fits will not go away any time soon.

The om­ni­bus spend­ing bill re­moved some re­duc­tions to med­ic­ally re­tired vet­er­ans’ re­tire­ment be­ne­fits, but that was a small part — less than one-tenth — of the $6 bil­lion-plus cut in­cluded in the Decem­ber budget deal. And that res­tor­a­tion won’t be enough for the out­side vet­er­ans groups, who have launched an all-out ef­fort to re­verse the cuts and have vowed to keep fight­ing un­til all the fund­ing is re­stored.

Vet­er­ans yield polit­ic­al clout, and after an end­less string of state­ments pledging to “sup­port our troops,” law­makers are loathe to have crossed them. And so the re­peal ef­fort is gain­ing trac­tion: The Hill es­tim­ates that one-third of law­makers have backed a pro­pos­al to re­verse the COLA cuts to work­ing-age mil­it­ary re­tir­ees in­cluded in last month’s deal.

But in a budget con­strained en­vir­on­ment, the money to re­verse the cuts has to come from some­where, and that’s where the unity shat­ters. Here are some of the pro­pos­als.

Adding to the De­fi­cit: Simply re­peal­ing the cuts and let­ting the spend­ing add to the de­fi­cit is thus far the solu­tion that has been pro­posed the most. In the up­per cham­ber, Sens. Kay Hagan and Mark Pry­or have in­tro­duced le­gis­la­tion to re­peal, while in the House, Reps. Robert Wittman, Jeff Miller, and Ju­lia Brown­ley have in­tro­duced sim­il­ar le­gis­la­tion.

Wrap It In­to a Lar­ger Vet­er­ans Bill: The latest pro­pos­al to re­verse the cuts comes from Sen. Bernie Sanders. Sanders in­tro­duced an om­ni­bus vet­er­ans bill Thursday even­ing that deals with a whole swath of is­sues from restor­ing the COLA cuts to ex­pand­ing schol­ar­ship funds. And it looks like it could have mo­mentum. Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id is ex­pec­ted to file the le­gis­la­tion un­der Rule 14, al­low­ing it to skip the com­mit­tee pro­cess.

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

But tax re­form — while sup­por­ted gen­er­ally by both parties — is typ­ic­ally more pop­u­lar in the­ory than prac­tice, and it has faced a ser­i­ous up­hill chal­lenge. Shaheen, however, has noted that she is will­ing to be “flex­ible” on how she off­sets re­vers­ing the COLA cuts.

Un­doc­u­mented Im­mig­rants: Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick is tak­ing a dif­fer­ent ap­proach­ing, press­ing to re­verse the COLA cuts by in­creas­ing re­quire­ments to re­ceive the Re­fund­able Child Tax Cred­it. The Pennsylvania Re­pub­lic­an wants to pre­vent un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants from be­ing able to claim the cred­it.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte has in­tro­duced sim­il­ar le­gis­la­tion in the Sen­ate. Her pro­pos­al got a mo­ment­ary boost when Armed Ser­vice Com­mit­tee Chair­man Carl Lev­in told re­port­ers he would sup­port her bill, but his of­fice quickly re­trac­ted his state­ment, say­ing the sen­at­or didn’t real­ize it was off­set by tar­get­ing un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants.

Block­ing For­eign Aid: Rep. Ted Poe wants to re­verse cuts by block­ing for­eign aid to Egypt or Pakistan. His at­tempt goes against the om­ni­bus bill which would al­low the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to re­sume more than $1 bil­lion in aid to Egypt.

And it isn’t the first time Poe has tried to block for­eign aid to Pakistan. When many of the armed-ser­vices branches, as well as the Coast Guard, sus­pen­ded their tu­ition as­sist­ance pro­grams, Poe sug­ges­ted sus­pend­ing aid to Pakistan un­til the pro­grams were fully fun­ded, des­pite the sig­ni­fic­ant dif­fer­ence in spend­ing both pro­grams re­quire.

Poe would also help off­set the costs of re­vers­ing the full COLA cuts by au­thor­iz­ing the sales of some fed­er­al land over­seen by the Bur­eau of Land Man­age­ment and the na­tion­al forest sys­tem.

At­tack­ing Obama­care: Rep. Scott Des­Jar­lais in­tro­duced le­gis­la­tion that would re­store COLA fund­ing and make up the ad­ded cost by re­du­cing the Af­ford­able Care Act’s Pre­ven­tion and Pub­lic Health Fund. The fund, part of the Af­ford­able Care Act, in­vests in pro­grams aimed at im­prov­ing health qual­ity and out­comes; it also sup­ports pre­ven­tion pro­grams.

Des­Jar­lais isn’t the first — and likely won’t be the last — Re­pub­lic­an con­gress­man to tar­get the fund, and the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has already used some of the fund to pay for oth­er parts of the Af­ford­able Care Act.

Sen. Ted Cruz also tried to amend the om­ni­bus to re­peal the Af­ford­able Care Act and re­store the full COLA fund­ing, des­pite the fact that any sig­ni­fic­ant changes to the ACA are a non­starter in the Demo­crat­ic­ally con­trolled Sen­ate.

Drugs for Vet­er­ans: Rep. James Lank­ford has in­tro­duced le­gis­la­tion to re­peal the COLA cuts and swap out the fund­ing by re­quir­ing the de­part­ments of De­fense and Vet­er­ans Af­fairs to pur­chase con­tracts for pre­scrip­tion drugs to­geth­er. The Ok­lahoma Re­pub­lic­an points to $660 mil­lion saved by the VA in 2005 un­der a sim­il­ar joint-pur­chas­ing policy.

Changes to the Postal Sys­tem: Rep. Dar­rell Issa is pro­pos­ing to re­store COLA funds by im­ple­ment­ing a mod­i­fied Sat­urday de­liv­ery sched­ule. The Postal Ser­vice pre­vi­ously tried to change its Sat­urday de­liv­ery sched­ule, but mem­bers of Con­gress blocked the at­tempt.

From Oth­er De­fense De­part­ment Spend­ing: Rep. Gus Bi­lira­kis would off­set the ap­prox­im­ately $6 bil­lion in cuts by re­du­cing the De­fense De­part­ment’s un­oblig­ated funds. The de­part­ment fin­ished the 2013 fisc­al year with $65.4 bil­lion in un­oblig­ated money, after us­ing the fund to help stave off the ef­fects of se­quest­ra­tion.

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