Sanders wants to pay for military pension fix with funding from wars

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie SandersBernie SandersObama makes 0K for speech at A&E event: report Van Jones: Obama should do ‘poverty tour’ Sanders calls for renewed focus on fighting climate change MORE (I-Vt.) says he wants to pay for restoring $6 billion in cuts to military pensions by tapping funds for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sanders told reporters Wednesday that he was eyeing overseas contingency operations (OCO) to pay for most — if not all — of the $30 billion veterans omnibus bill he introduced last week, which includes the repeal of the military retirement benefits cut.

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The Veterans Affairs chairman said he believed funds typically used by the Pentagon and State Department for overseas wars should also extend to veterans back at home.

“We use OCO for defense, and I think it’s totally legitimate to use it for those who defend us,” Sanders said. “I think a significant amount, or all of it, could come from OCO ... I believe having looked at this, there is more than enough money in that fund to fund this legislation.”

Sanders said that the funding mechanism for his veterans bill had not been finalized, as Democratic Senate leadership still had to weigh in on how to offset the bill.

Using overseas contingency funds to pay for the veterans bill — which includes a number of provisions dealing with veterans care and advanced appropriations funding — is a tempting prospect because it is effectively “off budget,” and not subject to the spending caps set under sequestration and last month’s budget deal.

But Sanders’s idea of using war funds for the bill quickly hit resistance in the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

One GOP House committee aide said using OCO to fund the measure is problematic because the funding is temporary and the war in Afghanistan is winding down.

“That money is not a regular budget item and by design will run out once overseas contingency operations have ended, and therefore is probably not the best vehicle to use as an offset,” the aide said. “We feel veterans would be better served if the Senate took a more measured, piecemeal approach to passing some of the initiatives included in Sen. Sanders’s bill.”

The aide pointed to a Congressional Budget Office analysis published in 2012 that stated: “There is no ‘OCO fund’ set aside in the Treasury from which resources can be drawn in future years.”

Sanders said his bill would cost $30 billion over about 10 years.

He said that he had not yet reached out to Republicans to try and get their support on his legislation, but that he would do so soon. He noted that several of the provisions come from Republicans.

Sanders said that he thinks that repealing the $6 billion cut to the cost-of-living adjustment for working-age retirees, which was part of last month’s budget deal, is a key part of his veterans package.

The omnibus spending bill repealed the cuts for medically retired veterans, but left the bulk of the pension cuts in place.

Many lawmakers from both parties want to undo the pension cuts — and more than a third have signed onto bills that would do so — but there’s no bipartisan agreement over how to offset the $6 billion.

Sanders said that he felt it was best to tackle the pension issue within his comprehensive veterans bill. His legislation would also provide advanced appropriations for the Department of Veterans Affairs, expand VA healthcare and hire veterans for vacant federal jobs.

He touted the endorsements most veterans organizations have given the legislation and said he expected virtually every major veterans group would back the bill.

Sanders said that he had spoken with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) about the bill on Wednesday, and that Reid wanted to bring it up on the floor “as quickly as possible.”

The Veterans Affairs chairman said that he hoped the bill could come up in the Senate’s next work period, which begins next week and runs through President's Day.