Sanders urges quick passage of bill repealing military pension cuts

Flanked by more than a half-dozen veterans groups, Senate Veterans Affairs Chairman Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — ObamaCare premiums dropping for 2020 | Warren, Buttigieg shift stances on 'Medicare for All' | Drug companies spend big on lobbying Mellman: Trumping peace and prosperity Tlaib to join Sanders at campaign rally in Detroit MORE (I-Vt.) on Tuesday urged quick Senate passage of his veterans legislation that would repeal the $6 billion in military pension cuts.

Sanders $24 billion veterans omnibus bill is a 367-page measure that includes a number of provisions, including the repeal of the military pension cuts included in the December 2013 budget deal.

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But Sanders’ measure offsets $20 billion of the cost by using funds for the wars overseas, and the use of off-budget Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) has raised red flags from Republicans.

Sanders said at a Tuesday press conference that he had 10 co-sponsors for his omnibus bill, but so far no Republicans have offered their support.

That could be problematic as Sanders’ bill appears to be headed to the Senate floor for a procedural vote as early as next week.

Sanders brushed aside questions Tuesday about why Republicans haven’t signed onto the measure.

“You can ask them,” Sanders said. “In case you haven’t heard, it’s a fairly partisan environment here. I think if you talk to Republicans on the committee, they will tell you, they will acknowledge, there are provisions of there’s in there. We have worked in bipartisan way. I hope we will have [Republicans] and I believe we will.”

The issue with offsetting the cost of Sanders’ bill is the same one that has stymied a number of other standalone measures that would repeal the cut to the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for working-age military retirees.

Repealing the pension cuts has broad backing in both parties, but no bill to do so has attracted significant bipartisan support because the two parties disagree over the $6 billion offset.

A pair of conservative-leaning veterans groups laid out their issues with Sanders’ bill on a conference call Tuesday morning, ahead of his press conference.

While the groups, Concerned Veterans for America and American Veterans, raised other issues with the legislation, they said their chief complaint was that the bill was paid for with OCO funds.

The groups instead said they were supporting a measure from Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) that would offset the COLA cuts repeal by preventing illegal immigrants from claiming the additional child tax credit, a non-starter with Democrats.

A Senate Democratic leadership aide said that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would file cloture on the Sanders bill on Thursday, which would set up a Monday procedural vote on the measure.

At Tuesday’s press conference, all of the leading veterans organizations offered their support to Sanders’ legislation, saying it was an important measure that would help veterans and urging Republicans to get on board.

“There’s absolutely nothing in this that any member of the House or Senate should hesitate in voting for this bill and doing this quickly,” said Alex Nicholson, legislative director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America (IAVA).

In addition to repealing the COLA cuts, Sanders bill would expand access to VA healthcare programs, give veterans in-state tuition across the country and provide advanced appropriations for the Department of Veterans Affairs. The bill is paid for by offsetting $4 billion in mandatory spending in addition to the $20 billion in OCO funds. 

If Republicans block the bill in the Senate, it could provide fodder for Democrats on the campaign trail to argue that Republicans were voting against veterans’ legislation.

Of course, Republicans can argue the same thing by saying that Democrats were blocking a vote on Ayotte’s bill to restore the pension cuts for military retirees.

It’s still unclear whether the two parties can agree to an amendment process for the bill, a constant issue for the Senate, should it get on the floor.

Sanders said Tuesday that he would support some amendments if the two sides could decided on a limited number of amendments. But Republicans may call for an open amendment process.

“The dilemma we’ve had politically, is that someone wants to bring forward 100 different amendments and essentially sabotage the bill, and that’s not acceptable,” Sanders said. “On the other hand, no amendments, that’s not acceptable.”