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Senate subcommittee backs lower pay raise for troops

WASHINGTON — The Senate is so far backing the Pentagon’s proposed 1 percent cap on troop pay raises as it drafts the country’s 2015 defense budget.

The bill — still in its early stages — would also freeze military housing allowance rates below inflation and require higher co-pays on some medication prescriptions, according to a subcommittee meeting Wednesday of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

However, the subcommittee version bucks the Department of Defense proposal to slash commissary subsidies and reform the Tricare health care system.

The House is set to vote this week on its version on the defense budget that keeps pay raises at 1.8 percent and preserves military supermarket subsidies, current BAH, and Tricare. The military’s top brass has urged Congress to support reforms to troop pay and benefits as a way to reduce costs and balance budgets that are shrinking due to sequestration. But lawmakers on Capitol Hill have balked at the cuts during the budget process and have instead opted to fulling fund the popular programs.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who chairs the military personnel subcommittee, said even the proposed changes to housing allowances and prescription costs should be reversed when the annual defense bill is heard in the full Senate.

“I want to be clear — the cuts included are required because the lower levels required by sequestration,” Gillibrand said during the meeting Wednesday. “I hope to be able to repeal some or all of these provisions once this bill is on the floor, and I welcome that debate.”

She declined to comment further on the defense budget, known as the National Defense Authorization Act. But under Senate rules additional spending on pay raises, housing and health care must be paid for by cuts elsewhere in the budget. The NDAA was scheduled to be heard in a closed-door meeting later in the day by the full Armed Services Committee.

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, warned the subcommittee to further discuss the decision to fund the programs and its potential effects on the military’s ability to fight wars.

“We are in the position of having to approve or not approve some very significant changes that cause problems elsewhere,” he said. “Probably the somewhere else is [military] readiness, which is probably not where we should be cutting.”

Earlier this month, all members of the Joint Chiefs testified in a rare gathering before the Senate Armed Services Committee to warn of the dangers of a shrinking defense budget and press for support of a 1 percent pay-raise and reductions to commissary, housing and health care benefits.

In addition to the 1 percent pay raise, the DOD proposes cutting subsidies to base supermarkets from $1.4 billion to $400 million annually, reducing housing allowances until servicemembers pay about 5 percent for residences and utilities, and consolidating the Tricare health care system.

Overall, the reforms would save the military about $2 billion in the 2015 fiscal year and $31 billion over five years.

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten
 

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