Senators vow to stop military pension cuts

A group of Republican defense hawks are vowing to fight cuts to military pensions after the Senate easily approved the reductions as part of the budget deal Tuesday.

Just before Tuesday’s 67-33 vote on the bill, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) held a press conference with service member and veterans organizations to slam Congress for including military retirement pay as part of the deal.

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The senators said they would fight to strip the cuts from the budget agreement and replace them with savings elsewhere.

“The truth of the matter is, we’re probably going to lose this fight but win this war,” Graham said ahead of Tuesday’s vote. “We’re in a big hurry around here to show everyone how functional we are. Even when we’re functional, we’re dysfunctional."

The budget agreement saved $6 billion by reducing the cost-of-living adjustment for working-age military retirees under the age of 62. The deal reduces the rate to 1 percent below inflation.

Graham blamed Congress for ignoring the burden placed on veterans because lawmakers are “hell bent to get out of town.”

Graham, Wicker and Ayotte all declared their opposition to the budget deal last week over the inclusion of the military pension cuts.

They were backed up at Tuesday’s press conference by numerous armed service and veterans organizations, which tried to make a rapid lobbying push to generate opposition to the deal in the Senate. The Military Officers Association of America, which leads the 33-member Military Coalition, met with every Senate office ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

The pension issue did little to sway the outcome of the vote, however. The agreement reached between House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) passed 332-94 in the House last week, and the Senate voted to end debate on the measure 67-33 Tuesday, with 12 Republicans backing it.

The Pentagon also supported the budget deal, which provides $63 billion in sequester relief over the next two years, including $31 billion to the military.

The defense hawks who opposed the budget agreement said they would push for other ways to save $6 billion, and Ayotte and Wicker submitted amendments to pay for the savings elsewhere.

While those amendments were not considered this week, the leadership of the Senate Armed Services Committee say they would look at changes to the military pension cuts next year.

“We’re going to look at it,” Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said. “I think it’s much preferable that anything like that be part of a much more comprehensive approach. Singling that out, it seems to me, is not the best way to do things that involve this kind of sacrifice.”

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the Armed Services panel, said he backed Wicker’s amendment to change the pension cuts.

“The Ryan-Murray budget deal cherry picked once again from our men and women in uniform to strip away from the retirement benefit they have earned by their service,” Inhofe said in a statement.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who voted for the budget deal, said he wants to change the pension issue as well, but the budget and sequester relief for the Pentagon was too important to oppose the overall package.

“We have a commission working on this whole package right now, and I’m confident we will fix it next year,” McCain said. “I talked to all four leaders of the [military] services, all of them want this passed because they need the relief from sequestration. Every military leader supports this bill.”

The defense hawks argued that the budget deal unfairly puts the burden on the backs of military retirees.

They pointed to data from the service organizations that a sergeant first class who retires from the military at age 42 would lose more than $70,000 over the course of 20 years under the cost-of-living reductions.

Ayotte said a legislative fix could attract bipartisan support.

“All you have to do is introduce legislation repealing this and putting a pay-for in,” Ayotte said. “I know that within the trillions we’re going to spend in next decade that we can find $6 billion, rather than taking it out of the backs of the men and women in uniform.”