Reid opts to help out vulnerables restore military pensions

Greg Nash

Senate Democrats on Tuesday cast aside legislation from the House to repeal a controversial cut to military pensions and pressed ahead with a rival plan from their most vulnerable incumbents.

The House overwhelmingly approved legislation Tuesday to repeal a $6 billion cut to military pensions, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he was opposed to a provision that offsets the cost by extending sequestration for mandatory Medicare spending.

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Instead, Reid touted a bill from Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and three other Democrats at risk of losing their seats in 2014 that would reverse the pension cuts without paying for them.

The Senate voted 94-0 to proceed to debate on the Pryor bill, but Republicans said they wanted votes on alternative proposals to replace the $6 billion in savings. 

Democrats said Republicans should accept the clean bill and dared them to vote against it.

“You’re either for veterans or you’re not. That’s the vote we’re taking,” Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said at a press conference held with several other Democrats who are up for reelection. “At the end of the day, it’s a simple repeal. This is not complicated to do.”

Republicans have objected to that approach.

“Our view is that it ought to be fixed by paying for it and not adding to the deficit,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Reid said Tuesday he would allow a vote on an amendment from Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) to pay for the pension cuts repeal by preventing illegal immigrants from claiming the additional child tax credit. But he also predicted Democrats would defeat that measure.

“That Ayotte amendment is just so ill-advised, so unfair to children,” Reid said.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), another Democrat up for reelection, is separately introducing an amendment to pay for the pension cuts by closing offshore tax loopholes, but that is a nonstarter for Republicans.

A vote on a clean repeal bill is politically complicated for Republicans, who would be forced to choose between restoring the retirement pay for veterans or adding to the deficit.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is facing multiple primary challengers in his reelection bid, said he didn’t know how he would vote on the bill without an offset.

“If we’re not going to pay for it, then the budget deal is broken before the ink is dry,” Graham said. “I shouldn’t have to pick between doing justice to the military retirees and doing justice to future generations.”

Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he was opposed to the clean bill — but thought it could still pass the Senate.

“I think it might,” Inhofe said. “I think it probably would.”

In the House, Republican leaders had initially proposed Monday to tie the military pension cuts repeal to the debt-limit increase. But they quickly abandoned that approach, after it was clear they didn’t have the support.

The House passed the pension cuts bill on suspension, with just 19 Republicans and 71 Democrats opposed.

The House bill would repeal the COLA reduction of 1 percentage-point below inflation for working age retirees by extending the mandatory sequester to 2024. The December 2013 budget deal, which approved the pension cut, already extended the Medicare sequester by two years, to 2023.

Reid did not indicate whether he would take up the House-passed bill in the Senate, saying he was confident the Senate would pass the Pryor bill.

The House Republicans’ offset is one Reid himself had proposed to pay for a short-term extension of unemployment insurance.

But the Democratic leader said he is opposed to using it to pay for the repeal of the pension cuts.

“That pay-for, remember, that was my unemployment compensation extension. They didn’t like that. But now they like it,” Reid said Tuesday. “This shows the absurdity of the lack of common sense and reasoning that Republicans in Congress have.”

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said he was opposed to future Medicare cuts to pay for the COLA repeal.

“Should we be put in a position where we’re going to take out of Medicare in order to do the right thing that we need by our veterans? I don’t think so,” Nelson said.

Several House Democrats, including House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), said that was why they voted against the House bill Tuesday.

“So we’re really simply robbing one group of deserving people to pay another group of deserving people,” House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said on the House floor. “That is hardly responsible and hardly helpful.”

This story was updated at 8:15 p.m.

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