Budget deal cuts benefits to some vets: Heartless or painless?

Some Republicans criticized the budget deal passed by the Senate Wednesday because it cuts retirement benefits to some veterans. Military cuts are often tough for Congress to stomach.

Susan Walsh/AP
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday with Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire (l.), urging Senate colleagues to change the budget proposal that cuts retirement benefits for current and future military retirees.

Attempt to tamper with Americans’ Social Security benefits, and lawmakers risk touching the highly charged "third rail" of politics. Try that with the military, and they face a firing squad.

On Wednesday, as expected, the Senate passed the bipartisan budget deal unveiled last week, 64 to 36. But the past two days have been anything but hand-holding and back slaps on the Senate floor. Instead, several lawmakers nearly resorted to pistols drawn at 20 paces over a provision in the bipartisan budget deal that reduces military retirement benefits by $6 billion over 10 years.

To the lawmakers who crafted the deal, Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin and Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington, it seemed like a fairly painless cut. The people it targets – those who retired from the military after 20 years of service, but who are still of working age (under age 62) – often go on to other jobs. The budget deal, passed overwhelmingly by the House last week, reduces cost-of-living adjustments for these younger retirees by 1 percent. 

But that 1 percent figure touched a trip wire in the Senate.

Several Republicans deplored the cost-of-living cut as “appalling.” Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire said the provision was a “deal breaker.” She wasn’t the only one urging a “no” vote on the budget agreement that averts a government shutdown and that – military hawks take note – increases the military budget by $31 billion.

Cutting the military has long been a perilous quest. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates famously had to fight Congress to cut off production of the F-22 fighter jet in 2009. But he was never able to do anything about the military’s retirement and health benefits, which he called unsustainable.

Personnel costs are soaring, up 40 percent per service member since 2001. But cutting benefits after more than a decade of war is seen as heartless, and lawmakers who have a heavy military presence in their states know that defense cuts mean less money coming to their constituencies, as well as a potential backlash at the ballot box.

This week, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina was particularly passionate. “Of all the groups in America you would go to and single out [for cuts] …we picked the military community,” he said Tuesday. Do you know how much a master sergeant with 20 years experience makes in retirement? he asked. Answer: less than $25,000 a year. The cut in cost of living (COLA) is the equivalent of giving up three years of retirement pay, he said.

“These are the people who have been serving continuously since 9/11 … and this COLA reduction doesn’t just apply to people who are retired and in good shape,” continued the man with eight military bases in his state. “Someone who has had their legs blown off in Afghanistan or Iraq, and most likely will not be able to get a second job, is going to lose thousands of dollars in this cost-of-living adjustment and nobody else in the country is so situated.”

South Carolina ranks No. 11 on a list of states by military population; Senator Graham, a former military lawyer, also faces reelection in 2014. 

One of the few other men in the Senate with military experience shot back.

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a former prisoner of war who experienced torture in Vietnam, reminded his fellow Republicans that President Obama’s bipartisan commission to fix the debt, known as the “Simpson-Bowles” commission, called for the complete elimination of the COLA for young retirees. Not 1 percent, but 100 percent. 

Senator McCain argued that the 1 percent cut in the budget deal is not worth the price of killing the deal – another potential government shutdown.

He came back for another round of argument Wednesday, when he entered into a “colloquy,” or discussion with the budget agreement’s coauthor, Senator Murray. Sounding like a prosecutor, he fired questions at Murray – really aiming at his colleagues – in this excerpted exchange:

“Are you aware,” he asked the diminutive though powerful Democratic budget chairwoman, that the Simpson-Bowles plan, “which everyone embraced and thought was the greatest thing since sliced bread” recommended “scrapping the cost-of-living adjustment for working-age military retires”?

Murray: “The senator from Arizona is correct.”

“And isn’t it true,” the “maverick” former presidential candidate asked, that a retired sergeant first class of the Army would receive about a 6 percent cut in lifetime pay because of the COLA, but “receive about $1.626 million in lifetime retirement pay instead of $1.734 million”?

“And isn’t it true,” he went on, that Republicans and Democrats both support a commission that’s looking at retirement and health benefits because, in the words of former Secretary Gates, these costs are “eating us alive”?

“And finally, I would ask the distinguished chairperson, do you know of another plan, another idea, another legislative proposal that will prevent us from shutting down the government again, something that I refuse to inflict on the citizens of my state”?

Murray: “The senator from Arizona is entirely correct. There is no other legislation that can be brought before us at this time to prevent a government shutdown.”

And so the senator from Arizona rested his case. Or rather, laid down his firearm.

In the end, what happened to this issue is what happened in the modest budget deal overall. Opponents found a tiny bit of common turf. Murray said she would be joining with other senators, including Republicans, to offer a technical fix that exempts disabled veterans and survivors from the COLA cut – after passage of the bill. The Senate Armed Services Committee will review the cut as well.

Just as the budget deal put off costly, big-ticket items like Social Security and Medicare to another day to solve, so this fight over military retirement benefits drew to a close with a promised small, technical fix. It’s what this Congress seems capable of.

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