WASHINGTON – The House voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to restore full cost of living increases to pension benefits for younger military retirees, responding eagerly to election-year pressure from veterans groups.
The Senate debated a similar bill as lawmakers hastened to reverse course on the most controversial cut contained in budget legislation approved less than two months ago.
Approval of the measure was never in doubt in the House, where the final vote was 326-90.
Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., said the bill would "protect the promises that this nation has made to our veterans." He called on Congress to "care for those who have borne the battle and to send that message to all who can hear it."
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., argued that overturning last year's relatively modest change in pensions would eventually cause military readiness to erode as the Pentagon struggles to adjust to budget restrictions.
"We've got to make some hard choices. This bill doesn't do it. It punts in every conceivable way," he said.
Under the bill in the Republican-controlled House, a cut in cost of living increases for military retirees under age 62 would be eliminated before it is scheduled to take effect 2015. The $7 billion cost of the measure would be more than offset by extending pre-existing cuts in Medicare and other government programs for an additional year, through 2024.
The change to cost of living benefits was part of a budget bill that Congress approved late last year, and several lawmakers in both parties said at the time they would attempt to reverse it quickly in the new year.
At issue was retirement income for veterans with at least 20 years of military service. The Pentagon's figures show nearly 2 million retirees receive pensions at an annual cost to the government of $4.5 billion a year. Of them, about 840,000 are under 62 and would be affected by the legislation that passed in December to hold annual cost of living benefits one percentage point below the rate of inflation beginning next year.
Critics of the change said that would mean a reduction of nearly $72,000 in benefits over a lifetime for a sergeant first class who retires at age 42.
The legislation in the Democratic-controlled Senate also would restore the full cost of living increase, but would push federal deficits higher because it lacks reductions elsewhere in the budget.
Republicans sought to change that with a proposal by New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte to require Social Security numbers for any children whose parents seek a low-income tax credit. She told reporters the result would be to increase federal revenues by $20 billion over a decade while simultaneously cracking down on fraud by immigrants who live in the country illegally.
Democratic opposition to her proposal left its fate uncertain, and no votes on the bill were expected before Wednesday at the earliest.
Election-year politics was involved in the measure in both houses. Senate Democrats in difficult re-election races signed on as leading sponsors of the legislation, including Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.
In the House, some Republicans were relieved that the measure was coming to a vote as a stand-alone bill, rather than as part of a measure to raise the debt limit as the GOP leadership initially proposed.
Several officials said Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton, who is running for the Senate, had spoken out against combining the two in a closed-door meeting of the rank and file on Monday night. They said the congressman noted that the proposed strategy meant lawmakers who wanted to oppose an unpopular debt limit increase would also be voting against the politically popular pension change at the same time.
The officials who described his remarks did so on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to disclose details of a closed-door meeting.
Cotton's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.