It might take four to 10 years, but the sharp drop in survivor benefits at age 62 for military widows and widowers appears certain to be phased out beginning next year.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., made that more likely when on Wednesday she refused, despite mounting pressure from Senate leaders, to withdraw her amendment to eliminate the age-62 drop in benefits under the military’s Survivor Benefit Plan. Because Landrieu held out, she won a compromise.

For the first time ever, said Steve Strobridge, director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America, both the House and Senate defense bills support a “significant SBP provision” that, he said, “pretty much guarantees we’re going to get some SBP fix” this year.

The revised amendment, approved unanimously, would phase out the age-62 reduction over 10 years, starting in October 2005, versus 3½ years, starting next April, under the House- passed plan that Landrieu’s original amendment had embraced.

Landrieu’s original amendment proposed only a modest penalty, no more than 4.5 percent of covered retired pay each month on top of regular premiums of 6.5 percent. That is too low to be fair to retirees who have paid premiums for years or even decades, said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.

He proposed instead that retirees coming late to SBP be asked to pay all premiums they would have paid if they had enrolled earlier, plus interest.

John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Armed Services Committee and floor manager of the $447 billion defense bill, had signaled his support for Ensign’s substitute amendment. Landrieu, too, agreed. But the next afternoon before final passage, Warner asked Landrieu to pull her amendment, a source said. She refused. Negotiations continued with Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, playing a role. Warner and Landrieu finally agreed to the second change, a 10-year phase-in of higher benefits at 62. “Obviously we would much prefer the 3½ year phase-in found in the House bill,” said Strobridge. “But we have an opportunity to work that in the House-Senate conference. We will be pulling out all stops to get conferees to approve a fix more like the House than the Senate.”

Help for the disabled

The Senate also approved an amendment from Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., to speed restoration of full retired pay to 30,000 military retirees rated 100 percent disabled.

Retirees with service-related disabilities see retired pay reduced, dollar for dollar, by their disability compensation. Congress last year voted for a 10-year phase- out of this offset by paying retirees a new Concurrent Retirement and Disability Payment.

CRDP is to replace lost retired pay to those with combined disability ratings of 50 percent or higher. It began in January. The highest amount, $750 a month, goes to 100 percent disabled retirees.

The Reid amendment would repeal the 10-year phase-out of the offset for 100 percent disabled retirees and allow full restoration of retired pay next January.

Reserve retirement

An amendment by Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., to lower reserve retirement age from 60 to 55 didn’t fare as well. Warner challenged it on a budgetary point of order, citing almost $2 billion a year in added costs.

Warner warned Congress that if it continued to “narrow differences” between reserve and active-duty pay and benefits, the services not only will see personnel costs soar but could see an exodus of manpower from active components into the reserve component.

— Comments are welcomed. Write to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, e-mail or visit: www.militaryupdate. com

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