Senators voted 95 to 3 Wednesday to restore military retiree benefits cut last year as part of a compromise budget deal, adopting a House bill that covers the move by extending reductions to Medicare.
The rollback of the military pension benefits — which, according to the Congressional Research Service, would strip a typical military enlisted person of about $69,000 in lifetime retirement benefits — is expected to cost about $6 billion.
The House voted Tuesday to restore the cost-of-living adjustment to military retirees who are younger than 62. The trim had come as part of December’s bipartisan budget deal, and with veterans groups leading the charge, had been under bipartisan attack ever since.
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 free of riders.
The three senators who voted against the bill were Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), Daniel Coats (R-Ind.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) .
“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. “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 M. 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 original Senate bill was sponsored by Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who is facing a difficult reelection in November. Pryor’s bill, which was set aside for the House legislation, would have restored the COLA benefits without replacing them with other budget trims.
The House bill that passed Tuesday also extended sequestration levels for Medicare spending — an unpopular provision among Democrats.
“Cutting our military retirees’ earned benefits breaks a promise to those men and women who have raised their hands to serve,” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who serves in the National Guard, said in a statement after voting for the House measure 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.”
Before Wednesday’s vote, the Senate set aside several controversial amendments offered as offsets to make the restoration deficit-neutral.
Some Republicans had flocked to a proposed amendment from Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) that would have covered the COLA by no longer allowing illegal immigrants to claim a child tax credit.
“We want to fix this, but we can do so by paying for it,” she 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 nonstarter with Republicans.
In a separate amendment to the COLA bill, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Coats 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 Ryan (R-Wis.), who helped broker the budget deal in 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 legislation 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,” the VFW said. “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.”