Republicans readying alternative veterans bill

Senate Republicans are preparing an alternative to Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) massive veterans bill that would repeal the $6 billion cut to military pensions as part of a larger package.

The GOP alternative is being led by panel ranking member Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C) as Republicans are balking at the way Sanders would pay for his $24 billion measure.

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About $20 billion of Sanders’s omnibus veterans bill would be paid for by using funds for the wars overseas, Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), which are essentially “off-budget” and not subject to the discretionary spending caps.

“I don’t think that’s a real offset,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters. “Because we’re withdrawing from Iraq [and Afghanistan], we’re not going to spend the money, so getting credit for money you don’t spend is not an offset.”

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) agreed. “I’d rather have a bill that we can pay for,” he said.

Sanders’s bill is supported by the leading veterans organizations, and he held a press conference with them Tuesday urging quick passage.

Senators are expecting Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to likely file cloture on the legislation Thursday, setting up a vote as early as next Monday.

But the decision by Republicans to write an alternative bill spells trouble for Sanders's chances to get his bill passed by the Senate. So far, no Republicans have signed onto the measure.

Burr said he had hoped Reid would allow amendments to the Sanders bill or a side-by-side vote on both measures, but that he did not think the current measure could pass the House.

“At the end of the day, if they hold to what the current legislation looks like and they don’t offer the opportunity for amendments or a side by side, I think we all know they could care less whether it passes the House of Representatives or not,” Burr said.

“When there’s no interaction between the ranking member and the chairman you automatically have to be suspect of the intent,” he continued. “I think the jury’s out until we see what Sen. Reid does with amendments.”

Burr said that he was still finalizing his alternative legislation, adding that it was “highly likely” to include a repeal of the pension cuts, and that he was considering including the proposal from Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) to repeal the cuts to military pensions.

Ayotte’s measure would save $20 billion — the same amount as the OCO amount Sanders is proposing — by preventing illegal immigrants from claiming the additional child tax credit.

But Democrats have objected to that offset in order to repeal the cuts to the cost of living adjustment (COLA) for working-age military retirees.

The pay-for problem has plagued all of the flurry of bills that have been introduced to repeal the $6 billion military pension cuts included in the December 2013 budget deal.

None of the proposals have managed to attract significant bipartisan support, stalling the effort that has significant backing from both parties.

Sanders's bill would do more than just repeal the annual COLA reduction of 1 percentage point below inflation. The 367-page measure also expands healthcare in the Department of Veterans Affairs, gives in-state tuition for veterans across the country and provides advanced appropriations for the VA.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said he was only opposed because of the offset.

“I really applaud him for doing it and I want to support him,” Inhofe said. “The only reason I can’t is because he’s talking about the funding coming out of OCO. And we can’t afford having funding coming out of OCO.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) raised concerns about the funding issue, but said he also had problems with some of the provisions in the legislation.

“I understand one provision is we’re going to now pay for memberships in a health club or something like that if people are obese,” McCain said. “I just want to see what Sen. Burr’s alternate proposal is before, and then I hope we will be allowed amendments.”

Burr also said he had issues with some of the provisions that were in the bill, particularly the expansion of VA healthcare programs.

“When you open up to medical care as expansive as what Sanders’s bill does on its first reading, you potentially stand the chance of suffocating the VA infrastructure,” Burr said.

Graham said he was skeptical that Democrats’ plans to bring forward the veterans legislation were little more than a partisan exercise.

“I think this is going to be more of a political exercise than it is solving the COLA problem,” Graham said.

—This story was updated at 4:25 p.m.