Sen. Webb to resist cuts in military benefits

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), the upper chamber’s leader on military personnel matters, said Wednesday he opposes any cuts to military pay and benefits. 

Webb, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Personnel subcommittee, said he supports Pentagon efforts to cut waste but stressed he does “not favor” any approach that would cut military healthcare or increase the co-pays in Tricare, the military’s health insurance. 

“I do not think that is a place to start,” Webb said during a breakfast with defense reporters. 

Webb has been trying to work on authorizing pay bonuses for troops who have had tough combat jobs. Congress usually increases military pay above the Pentagon’s request every year. 

While the Senate did not approve pay raises above the 1.4 percent increases requested by the administration, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services panel, indicated that he was looking to include the bonus structure proposed by Webb in the 2011 defense authorization bill. The Senate has not yet considered that bill. 

Webb’s reluctance to consider cuts to military pay and benefits suggests the Pentagon is going to have a difficult time getting support in Congress for budget-saving proposals that affect those areas.   

Lawmakers view any decision to cut off or diminish benefits for the military, such as healthcare or pay raises, as politically difficult — particularly with the military engaged in two wars during the past decade. 

Defense Secretary Robert Gates earlier this year said healthcare costs “are eating the Defense Department alive.”

Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, recently warned that growing healthcare costs could hurt other critical military needs.

“We have to recognize that if we are not careful, these unbounded costs can force out military content elsewhere in the Department of Defense portfolio,” Schwartz said at a National Press Club luncheon Oct. 12. 

Schwartz said the Pentagon pays $40 billion in healthcare costs for military members and retirees and is expected to pay as much as $60 billion by 2015 — about 13 percent of the entire Pentagon budget. Schwartz attributed the large cost increase to the fact that co-pays for Tricare, the military’s health insurance, have remained the same for decades.

Webb on Wednesday said he is “happy” to listen to the Pentagon’s suggestions on the healthcare issue but cautioned that military hardware programs and the size of the military force should be “on the table” first as part of deliberations to trim Pentagon bloat.