Why the sudden push for military benefits

A move to raise death pay for soldiers sets up clash between deficit constraints and Bush's global aspirations.

Just before the president's State of the Union Address Wednesday night, the administration aimed to defuse one of the hottest issues on Capitol Hill by proposing a nearly $250,000 hike in the death payments for US troops killed in combat.

The move comes less than a month after House Republicans bounced Rep. Christopher Smith (R) of New Jersey from his chairmanship of the Veterans' Affairs Committee for pushing increases in veterans health benefits at a time when House leaders were urging restraint. "It's a change that came very quickly," says a House GOP aide.

It's a prelude to a larger clash emerging between deficit constraints and the new global aspirations of the Bush administration, which many see as a defining issue of the 109th Congress. "It raises core questions about what is the role of government: If we want to carry out our responsibility in national defense, will it crowd out other things?" says Michael Franc of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank here.

In recent years, both the Clinton and Bush administrations have looked to cuts in military retirement benefits as a source of budgetary savings. Congressional calls to increase the death benefit for families of those killed in combat were turned down as recently as last summer.

But Republicans have been caught short by the strength of public support for the military, ranging from calls to upgrade body armor in the field to an increase in support for military families. "The American people have responded to this really strongly: If someone is out there in harm's way, we ought to take care of their families," says Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, who, along with Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, is cosponsoring a bill similar to the Pentagon's proposal. The bill has 20 cosponsors in the Senate. A comparable bill has 157 sponsors in the House.

The Pentagon is proposing increasing the death benefit from $12,420 to $100,000 for families of US troops killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, or other designated war zones. The proposed change would be retroactive to Oct. 7, 2001, when the US entered Afghanistan. In addition, the government will pay for a $150,000 increase in life insurance coverage to $400,000. While there has been no official scoring yet, Senator Sessions says he expects the cost of the proposal to be $460 million over 10 years, including $285 million for retroactive costs.

Advocates for military families say that the public is now more aware of the sacrifices made by soldiers and their families in fighting the war on terror. "It also goes back to the mismatch between what we were able to do as a nation for the survivors of the 9/11 attacks in New York, which averaged over $1 million, and what we do for the survivors of those fighting the war on terror. It's not even close," says retired Marine Col. Lee Lange of the Military Officers Association of America.

For Democrats, the issue of troop protection and support is surfacing as a top critique of the president's management of the war on terror. Last week, Senate Democrats ranked troop support Nos. 1 and 3 on their legislative agenda for the 109th Congress. "It's all well and good for the president to make this proposal, but you have to see what he actually puts into the budget next week," says Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Democrats.

New Democratic proposals include increased healthcare for veterans, reservists, and their families; a National Guard and Reserve Bill of Rights; tax credits for employers of reservists who make up the difference between military pay and civilian income; and an increase in the death gratuity to $100,000 - a proposal made by Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry last March.

Another flash point will be the level of care provided in VA hospitals. Due to the surge in demand of new veterans, the wait for VA medical services can be more than six months. Democrats propose expanding mental healthcare to all VA hospitals by 2006 and ending the so-called "disabled veterans tax" that bars more than 400,000 veterans from receiving both retirement and disability compensation at the same time.

"I'm concerned about 1 in 6 returning from Iraq needing some kind of help for psychological stress. Veterans issues are one of our highest priorities," says Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, the deputy Democratic leader. In hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, both Democrats and Republicans called for extending death benefits to a wider range of military families, including those training for combat missions.

The death gratuity, which was raised to $6,000 after the 1981 Gulf War, was doubled to $12,000 in 2003. At the hearings, Sen. George Allen (R) of Virginia nevertheless called that an "insulting amount."

Still, all the new aid sets up a budgetary battle between defense and other domestic spending for later this year.

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