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Cuts to military retirement increases likely to become law, but critics vow to keep fighting

(From left to right) Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., speak out in a Capitol Hill press conference Tuesday against plans to trim military retirement increases as part of a comprehensive budget deal.

WASHINGTON — On Tuesday morning, veterans advocates and their Senate Republican backers vowed to fight until the end to stop a budget deal that includes cuts to military retirement increases.

The end came about 30 minutes later.

A 67-33 procedural vote in the Senate shortly after that press conference put the budget deal on a likely path to becoming law this week. Now, those opponents will have to gear up for a fight next year to repeal or replace the cuts.

The budget plan – a compromise between Democrat and Republican leaders – would avert another government shutdown next month by capping federal spending for fiscal 2014 and 2015 at about $1 trillion. The House approved the plan last week. After the procedural vote, the Senate was expected to give final approval late Tuesday or Wednesday.

The compromise replaces the mandated sequestration cuts created during a summer 2011 fiscal fight with alternate budget trims and several new fees and revenues.

Among those savings is an annual 1 percent reduction in cost-of-living increases for military retirees under 62. The move would save the government about $6 billion over the next decade, but enraged veterans groups say it breaks financial promises made to servicemembers.

“This is not just about money,” said Norb Ryan, president of the Military Officers Association of America. “This is about keeping our word (as a nation). Instead, they’ve rushed and made a very bad decision.”

MOAA estimates the change will cost a typical enlisted member who retires at 40 about $83,000 over 20 years, and cost a typical retired officer more than $124,000.

Supporters of the plan have argued that the veterans affected are all working age, so the re-tirement payouts would be extra income. But Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., noted that no exemp-tions were made for disabled veterans, many of whom rely on military retirement as a primary source of income.

Several veterans groups were appalled that military retirement pay was even in the discus-sion for budget relief, noting an independent panel is conducting a comprehensive review of the system for Congress. Results on their work is expected next year.

“It’s unbelievable we have to continue to have this conversation,” said Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “When this budget deal was an-nounced, they talked about all of the things that weren’t on the table. I was shocked that veterans and military families are on that table.”

Senate Democrats have publicly acknowledged the veterans groups’ concerns, but insist that providing some “sanity” to the congressional budget process is their top priority.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., has promised to hold hearings on the retirement issue in coming months, well before the changes go into effect in 2015.

Faced with a legislative defeat this week, the advocates said that the future fight will be their new focus. But they also acknowledged that repealing an existing law is more difficult than pre-venting one from being passed.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., mocked the deal during Tuesday’s press conference, at one point thanking the veterans in attendance for “balancing the budget and that other stuff you did for the country.”

He blasted the rushed budget process and unpalatable result, calling it another symbol of dysfunctional Washington -- the opposite of how Senate leaders framed the measure. He said veterans should feel insulted and vowed to make sure the issue gotbroad attention in Congress and in the public in the weeks to come.

“The plan,” he said, “is to unleash the forces of hell.”

shane.leo@stripes.com
Twitter: @LeoShane

 

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