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A claim on illegal immigrants and veterans goes too far

In this Senate campaign ad, Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) says his opponent, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), voted to lower funding for veteran pensions. The Post's Glenn Kessler puts his claim to the TruthTeller test. (Video: The Washington Post)

“What would you choose? To fund benefits for veterans or for illegal immigrants? I would never put illegal immigrants ahead of veterans, but Mary Landrieu did.”

— Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), speaking to the camera in a new ad

The politics of immigration is hot in Louisiana, as evidenced by the increasingly negative and false attacks that both Cassidy and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) have made in recent weeks. Our colleagues at this week published a very good look at how both sides have been stretching the truth on this issue.

Here, along with the Truth Teller video above, we are going to take a look at a new Cassidy ad in which he alleges that Landrieu chose illegal immigrants over veterans. Strikingly, Cassidy makes this accusation himself. Generally, such harsh attacks are done in the voice of an anonymous narrator. So Cassidy is really putting his credibility on the line.

The Facts

This claim revolves around a complicated parliamentary issue, which is often ripe for mischief in attack ads.

Last December, House and Senate negotiators led by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) reached an agreement on a budget deal that restored some of the spending cuts (“the sequester”) contained in a previous budget agreement. The goal was to call a two-year truce in Washington’s endless tangles over spending.

In an effort to find savings, negotiators agreed on a reduction in military pensions worth $6.2 billion over 10 years, by reducing the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for military retirees under the age of 62 by 1 percent. (Federal workers also were hit with an increased retirement contribution rate worth $6 billion over 10 years.) As cuts go, it was a relative pittance, affecting fewer than one out of every 22 military retirees. It also was designed to not go into effect until 2016, in case Congress decided to change its mind.

By the time the bill arrived in the Senate, the budget deal had already been approved in the House, by a vote of 332 to 94, with Cassidy in the majority. House votes generally don’t allow for amendments, unlike in the Senate. In an effort to keep the bill intact, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) “filled the amendment tree” to make it difficult to amend the bill.

So the vote that Cassidy cites is a procedural vote to reopen the amendment process. “The legislation before us today now is brought forward in a way that will not allow any amendments,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who pushed to allow amendments. “Nobody can get an amendment to fix this part of the legislation that plainly needs fixing.”

Why did Sessions want to reopen the process? He wanted to offer an amendment removing the reduction in military pensions. In an effort to keep it budget neutral, savings would be found by closing what he called a loophole that allowed illegal immigrants to obtain child tax credits by using a taxpayer identification number, rather than a Social Security number.

But that amendment was never put to an actual vote on the merits. Instead, Murray argued that allowing amendments would break apart the fragile agreement, and Sessions’s gambit failed.

Thus, despite Cassidy’s claim, there never was a vote that pitted “veteran benefits” against benefits for illegal immigrants.

In fact, the same day that the Senate voted to approve the budget agreement, Cassidy defended the reductions in military pensions on the Laura Ingraham Show. “There are no benefit cuts to people who are retiring,” he said. “There is an adjustment to their cost of living, which starts off not for all but those who retire … before age 62.”

In any case, within weeks, Congress did reverse the pension cuts. The House voted 326 to 90 on Feb. 11 to restore the old formula, and the Senate followed suit on Feb. 12, with a vote of 95 to 3. Both Cassidy and Landrieu voted for the repeal. President Obama signed it into law three days later.

John Cummins, a Cassidy spokesman, said that Cassidy did not  have a chance to amend the bill under the rules of the House, while he argued that Landrieu had that opportunity in the Senate. “Comically, Senator Landrieu and her allies have been using budget votes to spin fictional stories about Dr. Cassidy’s record, as has been routinely called out by independent fact checkers,” he said. “Yet, when Dr. Cassidy uses clear chronology and facts to hold Senator Landrieu accountable, she cries foul.”

The Pinocchio Test

Cassidy is really going out on a limb here, personally vouching for a ridiculous claim. Given that Cassidy voted for the same pension reductions in the House — and defended them when the Senate approved them — he certainly earns points for hypocrisy as well.

Four Pinocchios

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