By Jeremy Herb
The Senate on Wednesday sent legislation to President Obama’s desk that would repeal the controversial $6 billion cut to military pensions.
The Senate overwhelmingly approved the measure in a 95-3 vote, undoing the spending cut that Congress had approved two months prior in the December budget deal.
The only senators to vote against the bill were Tom Carper (D-Del.), Dan Coats (R-Ind.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).
The vote was a victory for veterans groups that launched a full-court press on Capitol Hill after the reduction to the cost-of-living (COLA) adjustment was unexpectedly included in the budget deal.
But advocates faulted the bill sent to Obama for not helping future enlistees. Only current service members and veterans would see the cut reversed. It will go forward for those entering the military after Jan. 1, 2014.
The legislation offsets the $6 billion cost of reversing the cut by extending the sequester on Medicare spending for one additional year, to 2024.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) decided to hold an up-or-down vote on the House bill Wednesday, rather than push for legislation from Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and other vulnerable Democrats that did not contain an offset.
Republicans had said they were opposed to the Pryor bill because it would have added $6 billion to the deficit.
Reid had said Tuesday that he was opposed to the House measure with the Medicare sequester extension, but the majority leader reversed course on Wednesday and said he’d hold a vote on the House bill.
Pryor, who joined other vulnerable Democrats at a Tuesday press conference to call for a clean vote, said he had no problems voting for the House bill instead.
“I think we moved the process along,” Pryor said.
After the December budget deal was unveiled, lawmakers introduced a flurry of bills to repeal the pension cut, which reduced cost-of-living-adjustments for military retirees under age 62 by 1 percentage point below inflation.
While lawmakers from both parties backed repealing the pension cut, none of the bills that were introduced included an offset that attracted bipartisan support.
House GOP leaders finally pushed the process forward Monday by proposing the Medicare offset, which Reid himself had proposed as a means to pay for an extension of unemployment insurance.
Senate Democrats said they weren’t entirely happy with the extension of the Medicare spending caps, but they didn’t raise objections.
“You don’t always get what you want,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who caucuses with the Democrats, told The Hill. “It’s pretty hard to oppose it since it’s one of the things we proposed a month ago on unemployment."
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) had initially expressed opposition to extending the Medicare sequester caps, but he said Wednesday he could support it because the change doesn’t hit the budget until 2024.
“We’ll get it fixed,” Nelson told The Hill. “It’s all this funny money.”
Senate Republicans also expressed lukewarm support for the offset, as they were hoping for a vote on a measure from Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) to pay for the repeal by preventing illegal immigrants from receiving the additional child tax credit.
“It’s not the best one in town, but it works for me,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “I think Democrats understand there’s an appetite to help the veterans, but there’s also an appetite not to add to the debt, and it seems like reason prevailed here.”
A few voices raised complaints. Flake said on the floor before the vote that Congress shouldn't be so quick to repeal the deficit reductions it passed.
"When deficit reduction measures get signed into law, surely at some point we need to stand by them,” Flake said.
Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he had problems with the bill because it did not include future enlistees, but he still voted for the measure.
“While it covers the current retirees, it does not cover future retirees who would then have to bear the burden of the COLA cut,” Sanders said. “It’s a partial fix, but it doesn’t go as far as it should.”
Veterans organizations also raised objections to future service member being excluded, which was different from nearly all of the bills lawmakers had previously introduced to repeal the pension cut.
"Future military retirees will be required to serve just as long and perhaps sacrifice even more than their predecessors," William Thien, head of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), said in a statement. "The VFW will continue to fight for a full repeal of the COLA penalty, and we hope that this vote will continue that conversation."
Ramsey Cox contributed.