Talk about lousy timing.

With President Bush’s popularity scraping bottom in opinion polls, with U.S. casualties rising in Iraq in a force surge that has stretched soldier tours to 15 months, the Bush administration on Tuesday said it “strongly opposes” key military pay and benefit gains tossed into the fiscal 2008 defense bill.

Initiatives the administration opposes include:

A military pay raise for January of 3.5 percent, versus 3 percent endorsed by the White House.Lowering the age-60 start of reserve retirement annuities for reserve component members by the length of their future mobilizations.Expanding eligibility for Combat-Related Special Compensation to servicemembers forced by combat disabilities to retire short of 20 years.Directing pharmaceutical manufacturers to provide the Department of Defense with same price discounts for Tricare retail pharmacy network that are provided already on medicines dispensed from base pharmacies.The administration also grumbled that the Senate intends to block for another year Tricare fee increases for under-65 retirees and dependents.

The objections appear in a “Statement of Administration Policy” from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget delivered to Senate leaders as they opened floor debate on the defense authorization bill.

A day later, Senate Republicans, at the White House’s urging, blocked amendments to the bill that would have shortened Iraq tours for U.S. ground forces and slowed frequency of wartime deployments. Republicans said the amendments really were aimed at changing administration policy in Iraq.

Here is more on Senate provisions that the White House opposes:

Pay raiseLike the House, senators favor a 3.5 percent military pay raise for 2008 versus the administration’s proposed 3 percent to match private sector wage growth as measured by the government’s Employment Cost Index (ECI). The White House calls the extra half percentage point unnecessary and notes that basic pay has jumped by 33 percent since 2001. The added cost of the bigger raise, $2.2 billion through 2013, is money “that would otherwise be available to support our troop,” the OMB letter said.

The White House will lose this one. Congress intends to approve the ninth consecutive military raise to be set at least 0.5 percent above private sector wage gains, continuing to close a perceived “pay gap” with civilians.

However, a Congressional Budget Office report released in late June suggests no such gap exists. When housing allowances growth and associated tax advantages are weighed, the pay gap for the enlisted force, which advocates say started in 1982, actually was closed by 2002. Since then, the military pay gap has become a “pay surplus,” even excluding improvements in special pays and bonuses, CBO says.

Military associations dispute the CBO findings and support congressional efforts to continue to pass special military pay adjustments. The House in May voted to sustain the string of ECI-plus-a-half-percent military raises through 2012. The Senate bill deals only with the 2008 raise. When House-Senate conferees work a final compromise bill later this summer, the CBO findings could persuade conferees to adopt the Senate pay raise plan.

Tricare increasesDr. S. Ward Casscells, the new assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, has said he intends to work with Congress and service associations on more modest Tricare fee increases for under-65 retirees and their dependents than have been pushed so far by the Bush administration. The OMB letter doesn’t reflect that air of compromise.

By not allowing the Tricare fees and deductibles to rise as the administration planned, OMB chided, the Senate is adding $1.86 billion — again “funds that would otherwise be available to support our troops.”

Reserve retirementThe Senate bill would lower the start of reserve retirement at age 60 by three months for every 90 days a reservist or Guard members is recalled after the change is enacted. The administration opposes this move, arguing it fuels growth in military deferred compensation and overall entitlement spending and will “only marginally” improve career retention among for Reserve and Guard members.

CRSC for Chapter 61 retireesThe Senate bill would expand eligibility for Combat-Related Special Compensation to certain retirees forced by their disabilities to leave service short of 20 years. Only those disabled by combat injuries would be eligible. CRSC payments would be set by plugging into the usual retired pay formula the smaller number of years that disabled retirees have served.

The House voted to expand CRSC only to Chapter 61 retirees who served at least 15 years and have combat-related disabilities rated 60 percent or higher. House-Senate conferees will have to reconcile the differences. The administration opposes such “piecemeal changes to disability compensation,” said OMB, noting that several commissions are studying disability pay. Congress should await a comprehensive reform package.

Sens. Jim Webb, D-Va., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., offered an amendment WednesdayJuly 11 that would have assured active duty servicemembers as much time back home as they spend deployed. Reserve component members would have been guaranteed a three-to-one, home-to-mobilization ratio. Republicans blocked the amendment from coming to a full Senate vote.

Hagel offered a second amendment to limit soldier deployments to Iraq to no more than 12 months and Marine deployments to no more than seven months. With 60 votes needed, the measure was defeated 52 to 45. Forty-four Republicans and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., voted against it.

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