Critics said cuts would cost veterans thousands
WASHINGTON – Congress voted Wednesday to restore full cost-of-living pension increases for younger military retirees, completing a bipartisan capitulation to veterans groups that rose up against a modest cut when it was enacted less than two months ago.
The Senate voted 95-3 for the measure, one day after the House approved it. The White House said President Barack Obama would sign it.
The overwhelming support the bill enjoyed, including backing by many prominent deficit hawks, reflected the clout that veterans groups enjoy, particularly in an election year.
The bill’s existence also underscored the chronic difficulty that lawmakers face when they try to restrain government benefit programs, which have largely escaped the impact of trillions of dollars in deficit cuts over the last three years.
Under legislation that passed in December, annual cost-of-living increases for veterans age 62 and younger would have been held to 1 percentage point below the rate of inflation. The change would have begun in 2015.
Pentagon officials have said reducing their personnel expenses is a top priority in view of budget cutbacks, and a commission is expected to make recommendations later this year on reining in costs.
Yet even lawmakers most familiar with the Pentagon’s budget said the cut enacted in December was a mistake.
“It was wrong to do it the way it was done. … There wasn’t any hearing or anything,” Sen. John McCain said.
The pensions go to veterans who retire after 20 years of service, regardless of their age. According to the Pentagon, nearly 2 million retirees are currently eligible, about 840,000 of them under age 62.
The bill headed to the White House would only apply to those already in the service. Newcomers to the military would still have their cost-of-living increases held below the rate of inflation when they begin retiring, in two decades or more.