Congress congratulated itself this week after voting to restore full cost-of-living increases for military retirement benefits — but the bipartisan unity showed just how difficult it will be to tackle the major spending challenges that lie ahead.
Just two months ago, Congress voted in strong bipartisan fashion to cut benefits for younger military retirees as part of the tradeoff for easing some of the ongoing budget sequesters.
But on Tuesday, the House voted 326-90 to restore the benefits, and on Wednesday senators followed in a 95-3 vote.
The reversal was stunningly quick, given that the cuts weren’t slated to kick in until 2015, reducing the cost-of-living adjustment by one percentage point for military retirees under age 62.
“This bill is a step forward but it doesn’t go as far as it should,” said Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent and chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, who added that while the cuts have been erased for current veterans, those joining the military today will see lower benefits. He said he’s written a bill to boost spending for those future veterans, too.
Lawmakers were being prodded to act by veterans’ groups, who constitute a politically powerful lobby and one that neither side wants to anger, particularly in an election year.
But the fight, over just $6 billion in spending over 10 years, also underscored just how difficult it will be to make bigger changes to government spending, particularly in popular but fiscally unsustainable programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
“If we can’t make this one stick, it’s going to be hard to do the bigger deals,” Rep. Charlie Dent, Pennsylvania Republican, said on MSNBC on Wednesday. Mr. Dent voted for both December’s budget that cut the benefits, and this week’s bill restoring them.
The December budget deal was written by Sen. Patty Murray, the chief Democratic negotiator, and Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP’s leader on the issue. Ms. Murray voted to undo the military cut, while Mr. Ryan voted to preserve it.
He had argued that it was an important step in getting control of the overall military pension system, which is growing so quickly that it could crowd out basic military spending.
This week’s bill actually reimposes some of the sequester-based cuts in order to restore money for the military benefits.
Joel Friedman, vice president for fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a budget watchdog, said by tapping domestic funds to restore military money, Congress has broken down an informal wall.
“That sends the wrong signal, potentially opening the door to further cuts in domestic programs as a way to shift more money to the Pentagon,” he wrote in a blog posting Wednesday.