December 17, 2013

Opponents swallow bitter pill, move budget bill toward final Senate passage

Top Senate Republicans oppose the measure because it cuts military retirement benefits, but haven’t tried to engineer its defeat.

By David Espo
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Year-end legislation to ease Congress’ chronic budget brinkmanship and soften across-the-board spending cuts moved to the cusp of final passage Tuesday, a rare display of Senate bipartisanship that masked deep Republican misgivings about slicing military retirement benefits.

click image to enlarge

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., left, attends a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, urging her Senate colleagues to change the budget proposal that cuts retirement benefits for current and future military retirees.

The Associated Press

The measure is expected to clear the Senate and go to President Barack Obama for his signature on Wednesday, marking a modest accomplishment at the end of a year punctuated by a partial government shutdown, a near-default by the U.S Treasury and congressional gridlock on issues ranging from immigration to gun control.

“This bipartisan bill takes the first steps toward rebuilding our broken budget process. And hopefully, toward rebuilding our broken Congress,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who negotiated the compromise with Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. The first major test of that is likely to come in February, when Congress faces a vote to raise the government’s debt limit.

Both of Maine’s senators, Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent, voted in favor of the compromise.

Tuesday’s vote to send the measure toward final approval was 67-33. But even as it was advancing, Republicans vowed that the requirement for curtailing the growth in cost-of-living benefits for military retirees under age 62 wouldn’t long survive. The Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., has said the panel will review the change, estimated to trim some $6.3 billion in benefits, early next year.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the measure had been written hurriedly as the holidays approached and was on course to pass because “everybody’s hell bent on getting out of town and not shutting down the government.” And yet, he added concerning the retirement provision: “How could we have done this?”

The provision related to military retirement was a relatively small part of legislation that itself was born of less-than-lofty ambitions.

Rather than reaching for a so-called grand bargain to reduce long-term deficits, lawmakers decided to reduce across-the-board cuts already scheduled to take effect, restoring about $63 billion over two years. The legislation includes a projected $85 billion in savings elsewhere in the budget.

Because spending would rise immediately but much of the savings would take place later in the decade, deficits would increase as a result of the measure for the current budget year and the two that follow. Over the 10-year period, the legislation measure shows a $23 billion cut in red ink – a trifle compared with the government’s overall debt of more than $17 trillion and rising.

Graham was far from the only senator criticizing the military-retirement provision.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he was voting for the legislation because it would cancel a $20 billion cut that would hit the Pentagon in January – and with the knowledge that the retirement provision could be changed before it took effect.

Added Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.: “This provision is absolutely wrong; it singles out our military retirees.”

All three voted against advancing the bill, but Republicans who were on the other side said they, too, were expecting lawmakers to reconsider the retirement action in 2014. “That gives some of us some comfort,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, one of 12 Republican senators to side with all 53 Democrats and two independents in voting to ease the measure over a 60-vote threshold.

It had been clear for several days that the overall measure was headed for Senate passage, particularly after the Republican-controlled House had voted overwhelmingly last week to approve it.

The political pressure on the Republican leadership there had been to demonstrate an ability to govern effectively and begin to dissipate some of the fallout from last October’s 17-day partial government shutdown.

(Continued on page 2)

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