Congress approved a new budget for the federal government on Wednesday, in a last-minute bipartisan win for what’s been an otherwise historically unproductive session.
But even as the Senate completed work on the bipartisan compromise on a 64-36 vote Wednesday afternoon, clearing the spending blueprint for President Obama’s signature, senators admitted they botched a provision in the measure and never intended for medically disabled military retirees to see their future benefits reduced to pay for higher spending now.
Calling it a “technical error,” Republicans and Democrats alike vowed to move quickly to fix it.
“I want to make absolutely sure today that they know that a provision included in this deal mistakenly included disabled retirees and survivors for changes in the pension growth will be addressed in short order following passage of this bill,” Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, Washington Democrat and one of the primary authors of the plan, said Wednesday on the Senate floor.
Overall, the budget deal adds more spending in 2014 and 2015, paying for it by promising fee hikes and other spending cuts in the future. But Republican critics noted repeatedly that the deal does nothing to tackle the long-term deficit problems.
All of the “no” votes came from Republicans, while nine GOP senators joined the majority Democrats in approving the budget. The plan passed the House last week.
Both Mrs. Murray and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, the chief Republican negotiator, called the plan a small step toward establishing the kind of trust that will be necessary for Congress to deal with taxes, spending and entitlement benefit programs such as Social Security and Medicare down the road.
Still, the pushback this week against cuts in military retirement benefits shows just how difficult it will be to go after any entitlements.
The controversial military provision would reduce the cost of living adjustment for benefits to one percent below the consumer price index for military retirees under age 62. It is expected to save about $6 billion over 10 years and goes into effect in 2015.
In writing the bill, it seems the negotiators didn’t realize the cut would include medically retired veterans as well.
Neither Mrs. Murray nor Mr. Ryan would point fingers as to how the error got inserted into the bill.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, was not willing to wait for standalone bills in 2014 and called on President Obama to not sign the bill until Congress had a fix.
“I would hope, Mr. President, you would hold the bill on your desk and send a message to the House and Senate: ‘I like your product, except this part. I’m going to hold the bill until you can find a fix,’” Mr. Graham said following the vote. “Mr. President, as commander in chief, I’m asking you not to sign this bill.”
Some lawmakers want to repeal the entire change, while others said they need to focus on the medical cases.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat, introduced a bill on Tuesday to replace both cuts by closing offshore corporate tax breaks. Rep. Dan Maffei, New York Democrat, said he’ll introduce a companion bill Thursday.
House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, said Wednesday he will introduce two bills: one just for medically retired veterans and one to restore full compensation for all military retirees. He said he voted for the bill because it prevented a government shutdown, but that he would not have supported the cost-of-living-adjustment cuts outside the bipartisan compromise.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday he was “confident” that the committee would find a fix before the cuts go into effect in 2015, but acknowledged on the floor Wednesday that the whole retirement benefits system may need an overhaul since costs are increasing so quickly.
Indeed, four senior retired military officers released a statement backing the retirement benefit cut and said Congress will need to go even deeper “to slow the rise of personnel costs and to ensure the military is able to make the necessary investments to maintain sufficient capability to fight and win wars.”
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