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Senate Votes Big Military Pay Hike

The Budget
By Helen Dewar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 25, 1999; Page A5

The Senate yesterday overwhelmingly approved the largest military pay increase in nearly two decades, marking what some lawmakers see as the opening assault on spending constraints in the new era of budget surpluses.

The first major bill passed by the Senate since the end of its impeachment trial of President Clinton, the legislation was aimed at demonstrating that senators were gearing up to conduct serious business despite their month-long preoccupation with the trial.

It also provided a political opportunity for Republicans to amplify their accusations that Clinton has shortchanged the military and for Democrats to show that they, too, support better pay and more benefits for the armed forces.

But the bill drew budgetary objections from the Clinton administration, which had proposed a less costly pay-and-benefits package, and prompted warnings from lawmakers of both parties that it could wind up squeezing other programs or eroding the fiscal discipline that helped end decades of budget deficits.

Even as the military compensation bill was being debated yesterday in the Senate, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) indicated that spending caps approved as part of the big 1997 budget deal may have to be raised, in part because of increased military spending. "It's a reality, probably, that we have to bust the budget caps," but any additional spending should be kept to a minimum, DeLay said.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has said he wants to avoid any breach of budget caps, although other senators have said this may be difficult in light of mounting pressures for increased domestic as well as military spending. "It's probable the caps will be busted," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a member of the Budget Committee.

The Senate's 91 to 8 vote in favor of the pay-and-benefits bill gives it a powerful head of steam as it moves to the House, where similar legislation is on track for consideration this spring, probably in connection with the defense authorization bill for fiscal 2000.

The bill would authorize – subject to future appropriations – a 4.8 percent military pay raise starting Jan. 1, with annual increases thereafter of 0.5 percent above the inflation rate. Clinton had proposed a 4.4 percent increase for next year, followed by annual increases of up to 3.9 percent. The Senate proposal would be the largest pay increase for the military since 1982.

The legislation also would give military personnel the option of choosing a more generous pension plan, as was available until 1986 and which provided 50 percent of basic pay after 20 years. Currently, those who retired after mid-1986 receive 40 percent and a one-time $30,000 bonus. The current system was aimed at cutting costs, but critics argue that it has made it harder to retain troops.

The bill also would give service personnel access to tax-favored savings accounts similar to the 401(k) plans available to private-sector employees, special assistance to low-paid personnel who now qualify for food stamps and expanded education benefits, including a provision to make the assistance available to family members of military personnel.

But the administration argued in a statement Monday that the bill costs $11.6 billion more than the president's request over six years, exceeding budget limits unless offsetting spending cuts are subsequently found and approved.

The Senate also approved a nonbinding resolution sponsored by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) urging pay "parity" for civilian government workers, which critics said would add another $10 billion in costs over six years if approved. Clinton is seeking a 4.4 percent raise for civilian as well as military personnel.

A proposal by Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) to pay the costs through targeted tax increases was rejected on procedural grounds.

While the administration has not threatened to veto the measure, it has made clear it would continue to push to reduce costs, arguing that the legislation could "potentially drain critical resources from other defense programs." But there is no longer a "firewall" separating defense and nondefense spending and so offsetting savings could come from domestic accounts, although there is strong pressure to increase domestic spending in many areas, such as education.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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