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Broad veterans' bill faces uncertain fate in Senate

Feb. 13, 2014 - 11:34AM   |  
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The repeal of planned reductions in military retirement pay by Congress has left the Senate’s wide-ranging veterans’ legislative package in limbo.

The comprehensive bill — introduced last month by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee — is scheduled for consideration when the Senate returns from break later this month.

It contains a host of benefits and program changes advocated by veterans’ groups, including an expansion of in-state tuition rates for Post-9/11 GI Bill users, advanced appropriations for the Veterans Affairs Department, improved services for military sexual assault victims, and new fertility treatment options for wounded veterans.

But the driving force behind the package had been a repeal of the controversial retired pay cuts, which would have reduced annual cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs, by 1 percentage point for “working age” military retirees under 62. The plan, part of a broader federal budget deal approved in December, infuriated veterans’ advocates, who lobbied for a quick reversal.

On Wednesday, the Senate finalized a stand-alone repeal plan, which would remove the COLA caps for all retirees except those who enlisted or were commissioned on or after Jan.1, 2014.

President Obama is expected to sign that measure into law in coming days. Sanders called the plan “a step forward” but said he’ll still push for a complete repeal, as well as his larger veterans’ omnibus bill.

That bill faces an uncertain future. Conservative lawmakers had balked at the $24 billion projected cost and the lack of clear offsetting cuts for those costs.

That price tag should drop with the removal of the COLA caps, which were estimated to save $6 billion over 10 years. But how the rest of the veterans’ package will be paid for remains unclear.

Sanders has suggested that a drawdown in overseas contingency funds — used to pay for combat operations overseas — could make up the funding gap, but House Republicans have blasted such proposals in the past as a budget gimmick.

Meanwhile, several individual elements of Sanders’ comprehensive bill have seen legislative momentum. Last week, the House passed a similar in-state tuition proposal, but tied it to limits on performance bonuses for VA officials.

The Senate is scheduled to return from break on Feb. 25.

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