Senate Republicans in a Box on Veterans Benefits

“That’s not an ideal pay-for, in part because it is so distant,” said Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. “That’s not an ideal pay-for, in part because it is so distant,” said Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Senate Democrats are determined to get a bill reversing $6 billion in controversial cuts to veterans benefits through the chamber this week without offsetting the cost. Their message: Veterans have “paid in full” their debt to the nation and shouldn’t be used as budget pawns.

The effort is in sharp defiance of a majority of Republicans who argue that the cost of reversing the cuts in pension benefits should be offset in order to keep intact the bipartisan budget agreement reached last year.

Proving that a bipartisan pay-for is achievable, the House passed a bill Tuesday, 326-90, that would pay for repealing the cuts in veterans benefits by extending mandatory sequestration cuts an additional year. The measure has support from 120 Democrats.

But the House proposal was shot down immediately by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and reaction was mixed among Senate Republicans, with some citing fears that pledges to make cuts later can easily be broken.

“That’s not an ideal pay-for, in part because it is so distant,” said Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. “The promise of distant future spending cuts is not at all optimal.”

Breaking from the now-infamous tradition of preventing Republicans from offering amendments, the Senate is expected to actually allow a vote on a pay-for favored by Senate Republicans, according to senators and aides involved. A vote on the pay-for from Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire that would close the child tax credit to undocumented immigrants could come as soon as Wednesday.

But without Democratic support, the measure is doomed to fail. Unless Democrats suddenly change their tune and strike a compromise on an offset, the building dynamic is to put Republicans in a box of having to either support unwinding the cuts outright—as the bill sponsored by Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., would do—or being forced to vote against it over the lack of offset.

“I can’t vote for it” without a pay-for, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a defense hawk. “That’s a false choice. I’m the guy that brought up the inequity of the pay-for,” he said about using the cost-of-living adjustment cuts in the budget deal. “That is a lousy way; we ought to go out and shoot the person who came up with this idea, but you don’t want to break the Budget Control Act, so let’s find another pay-for.... I’ve never been of the mind-set that in order to fix this you’ve got to break the budget agreement.”

The Senate majority’s clear goal is to undo the 1-percentage-point cut to COLA without an offset, claim victory, and go home to reap the political rewards over the Presidents Day recess. This was something Democrats made plain on Tuesday.

“This bill is very, very simple to me—it’s a veterans’ bill,” said Sen. Mark Begich, D‑Alaska, at a press conference with Pryor and several other Democrats sponsoring the bill. “You are for veterans or you are not. That’s the vote we will be taking. We made a promise we need to keep.... These veterans have already paid the price.”

Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana echoed that sentiment, saying that getting hung up over an offset is essentially disrespectful to the troops.

“The 127 men and women [from Louisiana] who have already paid for this bill with their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the thousands of veterans in Louisiana, are wondering why we are debating an offset,” she said.

“Whatever was owed they have already paid, and that is the issue in this bill.”

Senate Democrats could well get their way, given how politically untenable it is to take any vote that is equated with being against veterans, particularly in an election year.

Republicans last week had been expected to vote against even proceeding to a debate on the Pryor bill because it lacked a pay-for, but they abruptly changed course Monday and the chamber voted unanimously to proceed to the bill.

“I’m for fixing the COLA first and foremost,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. “The pay-for is a secondary issue.”

Democrats are banking on that pressure to score them another win in the Senate, leaving the question of how to work out a resolution with the House for another day.

                        

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