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By Connor Obrien, CQ Roll Call
The House Thursday passed its fiscal 2015 defense authorization bill by a wide bipartisan margin, on the same day the Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to approve its own measure. The House advanced 325-98 the annual defense policy legislation (HR 4435) after disposing of 169 amendments, debating all proposals Wednesday night and holding a rapid-fire vote session Thursday morning before final passage.
Thursday’s vote puts the authorization measure on the path to enactment for the 53rd consecutive year. At the outset of floor debate, House Armed Services Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., who will retire from Congress at the end of his current term, called leading the panel the highlight of his career and hailed the bipartisan process that produced the legislation year after year. “Congress has no higher responsibility than to provide for the common defense,” McKeon said. “And with that in mind, I look forward to passing this bill for the 53rd consecutive year, my last year as chairman and as a member of Congress.”
The bill adheres to the discretionary top-line figure established by December budget law ( PL 113-67 ), but largely avoids contentious issues such as an additional round of base closures, prosecution of sexual assaults in the military, illegal immigrants serving in the armed forces, overhauling military compensation and retirement of weapons systems.
The ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith of Washington, praised McKeon for upholding the panel’s bipartisan traditions, but also criticized lawmakers for refusing to make tough choices. Smith called the House’s rule (H Res 590) for amendment debate “weak.”
“It avoided, you know, the more difficult issues, and I think that’s unfortunate,” said Smith, who supported the bill. Smith had proposed amendments to authorize a 2017 BRAC and permit the Navy to take cruisers out of service, neither of which were made in order. The measure would authorize $592.9 billion for discretionary Pentagon and Defense-related programs in fiscal 2015, $2.7 billion less than the president’s request, including $79.4 billion to support overseas contingency operations, including the war in Afghanistan. The bill does not, however, specify where the overseas contingency funds are to be spent because the administration has yet to formally submit a detailed budget request for the account to Congress.
Use of Force Authorization Lawmakers rejected 191-233 a bid by California Democrat Adam B. Schiff to sunset the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force ( PL 107-40 ), which was enacted shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Schiff’s amendment would repeal the authorization undefined the central legal justification for military activities in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere undefined one year after the bill’s enactment. Schiff, a member of the Intelligence Committee, argued the law was overly broad and outdated and that his amendment would provide a timeline for both the president and Congress to consider a new strategy.
“Without a sunset, I am convinced that a year from now we will be exactly where we are today undefined continuing to rely on an increasingly legally unreliable AUMF,” Schiff said. The bill incorporates a Duncan Hunter , R-Calif., amendment, adopted by voice vote in an en bloc package, that would require the president to report to Congress on the identity and location of the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, as well as a description of all actions taken to kill or capture those individuals. It also would call on the White House to determine whether the president possesses the authority to use military force against the people and organizations involved in the attack. Guantanamo Detainees As with previous years’ authorization measures, the fiscal 2015 bill would bar the transfer of detainees currently held at the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States for imprisonment. In a similar fashion as prior years, the House rebuffed 177-247 a Smith amendment that would establish a framework for closure of the facility by the end of 2016. Smith echoed Democratic contentions that the facility was needlessly expensive and that terrorists are already held in U.S. prisons.
“We have the ability in the United States of America to hold dangerous people,” Smith said. “I will submit to you that if we didn’t have that ability we would be in a whole lot of trouble regardless of the people at Guantánamo Bay.” Republicans countered that the facility is a solid alternative to the politically unpopular act of housing detainees domestically and an asset to U.S. national security.
“If al Qaida’s on the run, I think it’s toward us,” said Ohio Republican Brad Wenstrup . New START Funding The bill includes a spate of provisions that restrict contact and cooperation with the Russian military in light of its annexation of Crimea. Prior to passing the bill, lawmakers adopted 233-191 an amendment proposed by Doug Lamborn , R-Colo., that would restrict funding for the implementation of the 2010 New START nuclear arms reduction treaty until the Defense secretary certifies that Russia is no longer occupying Ukrainian territory and is in compliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe.
“Why in the world would we want to give up further nuclear forces when the party that’s supposed to be working with us on this is not reliable?” Lamborn said. Major Weapons Systems The bill would authorize $8 billion for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, equal to the administration’s request. The legislation also would prohibit the retirement of the A-10 Thunderbolt II close air support aircraft–a popular platform among lawmakers from both parties that saw heavy use in support of ground operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Due to sequestration, the Air Force planned to deactivate its A-10 fleet, but the bill would fund the aircraft by tapping $635 million from the overseas contingency operations fund. It would further nix Air Force plans to retire the U-2 spy plane. The legislation also would restrict an Army plan to transfer AH-64 Apache helicopters from the National Guard to the active component Army during fiscal 2015.
The bill would authorize $15.1 billion for Navy vessels, including unrequested funds for refueling and overhaul of the USS George Washington (CVN-73) aircraft carrier. The bill also would block the Navy from retiring or deactivating any of its cruisers as part of the service’s phased modernization plan.
Personnel Provisions The bill would authorize $31.4 billion for the defense health program and would reject Pentagon attempts to curb growing personnel costs, such as increased Tricare fees and copayments. The bill supports a 1.8 percent pay increase for military personnel in fiscal 2015, while the administration has proposed a one percent pay hike.The House adopted, by voice vote, a Jackie Speier, D-Calif., amendment that would require the inspectors general of the Defense Department and the individual services to publicly release reports of investigations that confirm misconduct by members of the senior executive service, political appointees or commissioned officers in the armed forces in pay grades O-6 or above.
Sequestration During debate, McKeon cautioned fellow lawmakers, who will take up the task of crafting the next defense authorization bill after he retires, that the worst is yet to come if the across-the-board cuts imposed by sequestration continue. “While this bill makes tough choices, Congress will be called upon to make impossible choices in years ahead if sequestration is not addressed,” he said. Smith, too, said sequestration had already adversely impacted military readiness and cautioned that a “reckoning will come.”
“Put simply, we have a lot less money now than we thought we were going to have,” Smith said. “It will get even smaller if eight more years of sequestration come to pass.”
In the first official congressional action on the Pentagon’s proposed 2015 budget, House lawmakers have rejected proposed cuts in housing allowances and commissary funding, as well as an overhaul of the Tricare system that would increase out-of-pocket costs for some beneficiaries.
But members of the House Armed Services Committee’s personnel panel remained noticeably silent on the Defense Department’s proposed 1 percent basic pay raise for troops next year, opening the door for another smaller-than-expected pay boost in January.
And the lawmakers also signaled that they want service members to play a role in deciding what pay and benefits cuts they’ll see in the future, proposing a study that would ask troops to rank their benefits in value and importance undefined for example, whether they value health care and bigger paychecks over retirement pay and housing allowances.
Top Pentagon officials had spent the last two months arguing that the pay and benefits changes are necessary to help contain growing personnel costs, which threaten to overwhelm funding for readiness and modernization as long as the mandatory, automatic budget cuts known as sequestration remain in effect.
The personnel subcommittee’s draft of the 2015 defense authorization bill shows lawmakers remain unconvinced by that argument. In a statement, the subcommittee said the draft bill “rejects proposals that would have increased out-of-pocket costs for military families.”
Instead, the plan punts long-term compensation reform to next year, after the congressionally mandated Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission is scheduled to release its final report on ways to revamp the way pay and benefits are handled.
The subcommittee action is just the first step in a long process, and defense officials still have months of lobbying opportunity ahead before a final defense authorization bill is approved by Congress. But Senate leaders have expressed similar reluctance to cut troops’ compensation before the commission has a chance to weigh in.
Outside advocacy groups also have argued that no compensation changes should be considered until the commission finishes its work.
Service officials say delaying all the changes could cost DoD tens of billions in compounding personnel spending in years to come.
The Pentagon’s fiscal 2015 budget proposal had included plans to gradually reduce housing allowance rates to cover only 95 percent of average off-base rental costs, down from 100 percent. The House subcommittee would sideline that plan for now.
Defense leaders had also pushed to eliminate commissary subsidies at most domestic bases, effectively reducing annual funding for the system by two-thirds, which would have led to price increases of about 20 percent for patrons. Instead, the House plan asks for a study “to identify efficiencies that could lead to cost savings without reducing military family benefits.”
The subcommittee also rejects a DoD proposal to combine the three major existing Tricare plans undefined Prime, Standard and Extra undefined into a single system with a fee structure based on where beneficiaries get their medical care.
Instead, lawmakers asked for an anonymous survey of service members to determine “the value that members of the Armed Forces place on ... forms of compensation relative to one another.” That would include basic pay, bonuses, health care benefits and retirement pay.
The authorization bill draft does not weigh in on a pay raise for 2015. Under current law, basic pay raises that take effect each Jan. 1 are pegged to the increase in private-sector wage growth in the most recent full fiscal year. Under that formula, the pay raise for 2015 would be at least 1.8 percent.
But Pentagon officials have pushed for a 1 percent capped pay raise instead, to cut costs. And without specific congressional language mandating a higher raise, the president can intervene and set a lower pay raise.
If the 1 percent proposal is adopted by the Senate later this year, it would mark the second consecutive year troops would see a pay raise lower than expected private-sector wage growth.
For an E-3 with three years of service, the difference in the two pay plans will cost about $195 a year. For an E-7 with 10 years, it comes out to $356. For an O-5 with 12 years of service, the lower pay plan would erase about $667 of annual salary.
Military advocates have argued that the smaller annual pay is only part of the problem. After years of lobbying to close the so-called “pay gap” between private-sector wages and military paychecks undefined which by common measure peaked at more than 13 percent in the late 1990s undefined they worry the recent trend will leave service members with less purchasing power and more debt.
Ultimately, advocates say, capped pay raises would lead to the same recruiting and retention problems that plagued the military in the 1990s, when the pay gap was peaking.
Pentagon budget officials are proposing similar capped pay raises through at least 2018, which would continue to widen the gap. But they argue the trims, while difficult, will not devastate military families, and will help protect readiness and modernization efforts.
The 1 percent pay raise troops received this year was the lowest in the history of the all-volunteer military, dating back to 1973. In congressional testimony, service leaders have repeatedly pointed out that troops are still in line to see a pay increase at a time when some private-sector firms are withholding raises.
The full House is expected to vote on a final draft of the full defense authorization bill later this month. The Senate is scheduled to offer its initial drafts of the legislation in coming weeks, with a full chamber vote possible in early summer.
WASHINGTON (AP) undefined A divided Senate on Thursday derailed Democratic legislation that would have provided $21 billion for medical, education and job-training benefits for the nation's veterans. The bill fell victim to election-year disputes over spending and fresh penalties against Iran. Each party covets the allegiance of the country's 22 million veterans and their families, and each party blamed the other for turning the effort into a chess match aimed at forcing politically embarrassing votes.
Republicans used a procedural move to block the bill after Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chided GOP lawmakers about their priorities.
"I personally, I have to say this honestly, have a hard time understanding how anyone could vote for tax breaks for billionaires, for millionaires, for large corporations and then say we don't have the resources to protect our veterans," said Sanders, the measure's chief author.
Democrats noted that more than two dozen veterans groups supported the legislation. But Republicans said they still favor helping veterans while also wanting to be prudent about federal spending.
"We're not going to be intimidated on this," said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee. "We're going to do the right things for the veterans of America."
The fight over priorities demonstrated again the bitter divisions that have restrained the legislative process in recent years. Efforts to address immigration, a tax overhaul and job creation all seem likely to go nowhere this year.
Republicans criticized how most of Sanders' bill was paid for undefined with unspent money from the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and the winding down of American military involvement in Afghanistan. The GOP says those are not real savings because no one expected those dollars to be spent as those wars ended.
Republicans also objected to provisions making more veterans without service-connected injuries eligible for treatment at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities. They said that would swamp an already overburdened system.
The vote sidetracking the bill was 56-41, with supporters falling four votes short of the 60 they needed to prevail. Sens. Jerry Moran of Kansas and Dean Heller of Nevada were the only Republicans voting to keep the legislation alive and the only lawmakers crossing party lines on the vote.
Veterans groups complained about being caught in partisan crossfire.
"Veterans don't have time for this nonsense and veterans are tired of being used as political chew toys," said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which supported the legislation.
Democrats wasted little time trying to cash in on the vote.
Within moments, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee unleashed an email headlined, "Mitch McConnell Votes Against Kentucky Veterans." McConnell is up for re-election this year.
Republicans said there would be no retribution from voters because the Democratic bill would have harmed veterans' services by flooding them with too many people. They also said this year's election campaigns will focus on other issues, such as President Barack Obama's health law.
"We're sort of fooling ourselves to believe that this drives the election issue list," said Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, top Republican on the Veterans' Affairs Committee.
Thursday's showdown came after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., refused to allow votes on a GOP amendment slicing the bill's size and adding the penalties against Iran for its nuclear program.
Obama opposes new penalties while international negotiations with Iran proceed.
Fifty-nine senators of both parties have sponsored a separate bill imposing the punishment if the talks fail, though Obama's effort has weakened Democratic calls for a quick Senate vote. A vote could put the administration and some Democrats who favor the proposal in an awkward spot.
The White House did not issue a public statement on whether it supported the veterans' bill.
Sanders' legislation addressed everything from making more veterans eligible for in-state college tuition to providing fertility or adoption services for some wounded troops left unable to conceive.
The VA would have been given more tools to eat into its backlog of 390,000 benefit claims awaiting action for more than 125 days. The bill also would have bolstered programs for veterans who suffered sexual abuse, and would have increased dental care and provided more alternative medicine, such as yoga for stress.
In a two-year test program, some overweight veterans living more than 15 minutes from a VA gym would have been given memberships at private health clubs.
Benefits for some spouses of deceased veterans would have improved, and aid to relatives caring for a wounded veteran would have been expanded to include those who served before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
GI Bill Tuition Fairness Act of 2013 - (Sec. 3) Directs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA), for purposes of the educational assistance programs administered by the Secretary, to disapprove courses of education provided by a public educational institution that does not charge tuition and fees for veterans at the same rate that is charged for in-state residents, regardless of the veteran's state of residence. Provides for the treatment of veterans enrolled in courses at such institutions before July 1, 2015.
(Sec. 4) Extends through FY2018 the authorization of appropriations for: (1) a monthly assistance allowance to disabled veterans training or competing for the Paralympic Team; and (2) grants to U.S. Paralympics, Inc.
(Sec. 6) Makes eligible under VA homeless veterans reintegration program those homeless veterans who are: (1) participating in the VA supported housing program for which rental assistance is provided under the United States Housing Act of 1937, and (2) veterans who are transitioning from being incarcerated.
(Sec. 7) Extends from 12 to 17 years after discharge or release from active-duty service the authorized period for veterans with service-connected disabilities to enroll in certain VA vocational training and rehabilitation programs.
(Sec. 8) Reauthorizes through June 30, 2018 (under current law, the authorization expires as of June 30, 2013) certain qualifying work-study activities for individuals receiving educational assistance through the VA.
(Sec. 9) Sets forth the responsibilities of each Director and Assistant Director of Veterans' Employment and Training (assigned to each state by the Secretary from among personnel within the Veterans' Employment and Training Service), including: (1) monitoring the performance of veterans' training and employment programs, with special emphasis on services to disabled veterans; (2) addressing program performance deficiencies and establishing higher performance goals; and (3) reviewing program funding and assisting with funding requests.
(Sec. 10) Amends provisions concerning the Transition Assistance Program of the Department of Defense (DOD) (employment and job training assistance and related services for members of the Armed Forces being separated from active duty and their spouses) to require such Program to include: (1) information about disability-related employment and education protections, (2) instruction in the use of educational assistance entitlements, (3) testing to determine academic readiness for post-secondary education and appropriate courses, (4) instruction on the financing of post-secondary education, and (5) information on benefits provided under laws administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) and in other subjects determined by the Secretary concerned.
Requires the VA Secretary to submit to the congressional veterans committees the results of a study to determine the feasibility of providing veterans' benefits instruction at all overseas locations where such instruction is provided through a joint contract with the Secretary of Labor.
(Sec. 11) Amends the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 to extend through June 30, 2014, the veterans retraining assistance program. Directs the Secretary to submit to Congress an interim report on the retraining assistance provided under such program.
(Sec. 12) Directs the Secretary to increase, as of December 1, 2013, the rates of veterans' disability compensation, additional compensation for dependents, the clothing allowance for certain disabled veterans, and dependency and indemnity compensation for surviving spouses and children. Requires each such increase to be the same percentage as the increase in benefits provided under title II (Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance) of the Social Security Act, on the same effective date.
(Sec. 13) Prohibits the Secretary from paying any performance award to a VA Senior Executive Service employee during FY2014-FY2018.
House lawmakers endorsed legislation Tuesday that would repeal a cut in the cost-of-living adjustment to pensions for military retirees of working age. The House advanced 326-90 the bill (S 25) under suspension of the rules, an expedited process that requires a two-thirds majority for passage. House Republican leaders had planned to attach the measure to a bill (S 540) to extend the federal government’s borrowing authority (S 540), but changed course after determining that a majority of Republicans would not support the debt limit legislation.
The bill would modify the December budget agreement (PL 113-67), which included a 1 percentage point reduction in the annual cost-of-living adjustment for the pensions of military retirees under age 62. Under the legislation, the pension adjustment would apply only to members of the armed forces, or former members, who joined the military after Jan. 1, 2014.
“We have a chance today to treat our veterans with the honor they deserve by ensuring that they are fully compensated for their service during retirement, while also addressing other concerns facing our nation,” said Michael G. Fitzpatrick, R-Pa.
The bill also would establish a $2.3 billion fund to pay for changes to Medicare’s physician payment formula, known as the sustainable growth rate. The money could be used for either a short-term patch, known as a “doc fix,” or for offsetting the cost of legislation to replace the SGR and create a new payment system. Lawmakers are hoping to pass major legislation replacing the SGR before March 31, when the current doc fix will expire and physicians will experience a 24 percent cut in payment rates.
The bill advanced by the House on Tuesday also includes offsets. The measure’s costs would be offset by extending sequestration for mandatory programs for one year, until FY2024. While most Democrats supported the bill, several expressed disappointment with the legislation’s offset. “This nation is not broke,” said Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee, who said that Congress should revisit the extension of sequestration after the legislation is enacted. “We can fully fund, and should fund, our military as it relates to preparedness.”
Adam Smith of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee said the impact of the legislation on the budget would be profound. Smith, who voted against the bill, said that it would be a blow to military readiness and criticized lawmakers for rejecting Pentagon proposals to slow the growth of personnel costs.
“Here we have up-front money being spent on the promise that eight years from now we will cover those costs,” Smith said of the extension of mandatory spending caps. “So we’re really simply robbing one group of deserving people to pay another group of deserving people.”
The Senate is currently debating its own bill (S 1963) to repeal the military pension reduction. Senators voted 94-0 to invoke cloture on the motion to proceed to the measure on Monday evening. That proposal, sponsored by Sen. Mark Pryor,,D-Ark., does not contain offsets.
Cloture is a procedure used occasionally in the U.S. Senate to break a filibuster. Cloture, or Rule 22, is the only formal procedure in Senate parliamentary rules, in fact, that can force an end to the stalling tactic. It allows the Senate to limit consideration of a pending matter to 30 additional hours of debate.
Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014
Section 1: Short title and table of contents
Section 2: References to title 38, United States Code
Section 3: Budgetary effects
TITLE I undefined SURVIVOR AND DEPENDENT MATTERS
Section 101: would require additional dependency and indemnity compensation (DIC) paid to the surviving spouses of veterans with children to be increased for each month occurring during a three-year period beginning on the date of entitlement. Currently, additional DIC is only paid for each month during the two year period following the date of entitlement.
Section 102 would provide that remarriage after age 55 of a surviving spouse of certain veterans shall not bar the furnishing of DIC, medical care for survivors and dependents of certain veterans, educational assistance and housing loans.
Section 103 would extend the marriage delimiting date for surviving spouses of Persian Gulf War veterans to qualify for death pension from January 1, 2001, to the date that is 10 years and one day after the date on which the Persian Gulf War ends.
Section 104 would make effective date provisions consistent with provisions for benefits eligibility of a veteran’s child based upon termination of remarriage by annulment.
Section 105 would expand the Marine Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry Scholarship to include surviving spouses of members of the Armed Forces who die in the line of duty.
Section 106 would expand eligibility for the Yellow Ribbon Program to beneficiaries of Marine Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry Scholarship. BAG14053
Section 107 would authorize VA to provide, to any spina bifida-affected child of a veteran who served on active duty in Thailand beginning on January 9, 1962, and ending on May 7, 1975, and was exposed to a herbicide agent during such service, the same health care, vocational training and rehabilitation, and monetary allowance required to be paid to a similarly-affected child of a Vietnam veteran.
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