Senate votes to restore military COLA benefits


(Rahmat Gul/AP)

Shortly after passing a suspension of the limit on federal borrowing Wednesday, the Senate voted 95-3 to pass a bill restoring military retiree benefits that were cut last year, choosing to adopt the House's solution of extending automatic cuts to Medicare to accompany the pension increase.

In a lopsided vote, the House voted Tuesday to restore the cost of living adjustment to military veterans who are younger than 62 years old, which were cut as part of December’s bipartisan budget deal.

House Republicans had floated the idea of tying the repeal of military pension cuts to a bill raising the federal government’s borrowing authority, but ultimately passed a debt-ceiling increase and the military COLA restoration individually.

Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Dan Coats (R-Ind.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) were the only ones who voted against the bill.

“I supported an effort to restore these benefits, which was fully offset with alternative spending cuts, but Democrats refused to allow a vote on this proposal," Coats said in a statement released following the vote. Repealing these cuts today with only a promise to pay for it 10 years down the road is fiscally irresponsible and again delays making the hard choices needed to get our financial house in order.”

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters, "These soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen, who have given so much... they've already paid their debt. It should pass."

The House bill that passed Tuesday paid for the restored COLA benefits by extending sequestration levels for Medicare spending – a provision that is unpopular among Democrats.

“Cutting our military retirees’ earned benefits breaks a promise to those men and women who have raised their hands to serve,” said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) who currently serves in the National Guard, in a statement issued after she voted in favor of the House bill on Tuesday.

“The bill today will restore those cuts for our military retirees. However, I am deeply disappointed that the cuts were replaced with an extension of harmful sequester cuts on Medicare. This is not the kind of long-term solution that our country needs."

The Senate bill -- brought forth by Sen. Mark Pryor (D- Ark.), who is facing a difficult reelection in November – would have restored the COLA benefits without replacing them with other cuts. That bill was set aside for the House bill, leaving Pryor without passage of his own measure but giving him the ability to claim his proposed legislation helped spur the final action.

The rollback of the military pension cuts – which, according to the Congressional Research Service, would strip the average military enlisted person of roughly $69,000 in lifetime retirement benefits – is expected to cost about $6 billion.

Some Democrats have said they don’t believe the body needs to find a way to pay for the restorations – saying they’d support passing the restoration without an amendment that locates cuts elsewhere -- while Republican leadership has insisted that restorations should be paid for. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have proposed amendments to offset the restoration.

"Our view is that it ought to be fixed by paying for it and not adding to the deficits," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters on Tuesday.

As the senators prepared to pass the bill Wednesday, they set aside several controversial amendments that had been offered as offsets to assure the impact of restoring the cuts has a deficit-neutral impact.

Some Republicans had flocked to a proposed amendment from Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) that would have offset the cost of the COLA restoration by no longer allowing undocumented immigrants to claim a child tax credit.

"We want to fix this, but we can do so by paying for it," Ayotte said Tuesday. "It would simply require that those who seek a tax refund for the additional child tax credit would have to list a social security number for the child."

That proposal had been panned by the Democratic leadership and drew fire from Spanish-language media for much of the week.

“It's pretty clear...that amendment is so ill-advised and so unfair," Reid said Tuesday.

Democrats' proposals for paying for the benefit restoration included an amendment that would offset the costs by closing an offshore tax loophole -- a measure brought by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and supported by several Senate Democrats, including both senators from military-rich Virginia -- which was seen as a non-starter with Republicans.

In a separate amendment to the COLA bill, Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Dan Coats (R-Ind.) sought to provide a three-month extension to emergency unemployment benefits – which the Senate has already tried, and failed, to pass twice this year.

The cuts to military benefits were an unpopular provision of the budget deal, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have lobbied for the pension cuts to be restored.

Perhaps the most notable exception to the largely-bipartisan support for restoring the benefits came from Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who helped broker the budget deal last December.

In a statement issued after he cast one of the 19 Republican votes against the House bill to restore the benefits cuts, Ryan blasted the bill as a way of dodging needed reforms to military retirement compensation.

“Rather than making the tough choices, it sidesteps them,” Ryan said. “I’m open to replacing this reform with a better alternative. But I cannot support kicking the can down the road.”

The Veterans of Foreign Wars  issued a statement praising the vote.  "The world will remain a very dangerous and unpredictable place even after America ends its involvement in Afghanistan, and future military retirees will be required to serve just as long and perhaps sacrifice even more than their predecessors. It is in that regard that the VFW will continue to fight for a full repeal of the COLA penalty, and we hope that this vote will continue that conversation.”

Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
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