WASHINGTON – The Senate has passed and sent to President Obama a bipartisan two-year budget deal that increases federal spending slightly above previously agreed to levels and reduces retirement benefits for some military veterans.
Obama was expected to quickly sign the agreement that passed in a 64-36 vote with nine Republicans joining all of the chamber’s Democrats for a compromise package that drew some of its support from lawmakers hoping to avoid the specter of another governmental shutdown. The House adopted the measure 332-94 last week.
Republicans voting for the package were Sen. Saxby Chambliss, of Georgia, Sen. Susan Collins, of Maine, Sen. Orrin Hatch, of Utah, Sen. John Hoeven, of North Dakota, Sen. Johnny Isakson, of Georgia, Sen. Ron Johnson, of Wisconsin, Sen. John McCain, of Arizona, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska and Sen. Rob Portman, of Ohio.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, acknowledged that the modest proposal “isn’t a perfect bargain — no compromise is ever perfect.” But he maintained the new spending package is vastly superior to the plan it supplants – a process known as sequestration that implemented across-the-board federal spending cuts that proved particularly difficult for the military.
“The bargain rolls back the painful cuts of the sequester, including devastating cuts to education, medical research, infrastructure investments and defense jobs,” Reid said.
Obama, who supported the plan, said he was pleased with the outcome, asserting that the two-year budget plan “unwinds some of the damaging sequester cuts that have harmed students and seniors and acted as headwinds our businesses had to fight.”
“All told, it’s a good first step away from the shortsighted, crisis-driven decision-making that has only served to act as a drag on our economy,” Obama said. “It helps chart our economic course for the next two years, which means that the American people won’t be exposed to another painful and unwise government shutdown. But there is much more work to do to ensure our economy works for every working American.”
Under the plan cobbled together by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee, and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, spending during the current 2014 fiscal years increases from $967 billion to $1.012 trillion, with an additional increase to $1.014 trillion in 2015 without a direct tax increase. The spending increases, which particularly benefit defense programs, are offset by increasing the amount federal workers contribute to their retirement plans, adding a fee to airline tickets to help pay for security and the military retirement provision, which reduces cost-of-living increases for working-age military retirees, including those who retire early because of disability.
Starting Dec. 1, 2015, veterans under the age of 62 will see their cost-of-living adjustment changed from the rate of inflation to inflation minus one percent. Upon reaching 62, the one percent cut would be restored. The change will save $6 billion.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), among others, objected to the retirement provision, insisting it will harm military families, particularly those forced to retire early because of injuries contracted as a result of service. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed concern about the change and said his panel will consider addressing the issue when lawmakers reconvene after the new year.
Ayotte characterized the provision “a deal breaker.”
“We could quickly find $6 billion that would not be taken from the backs of our men and women in uniform,” she said.
But McCain, who famously was held captive by North Vietnam forces after his jet was shot down in the late 1960s, asserted that the proposal was insignificant and that the Department of Defense had to find a way to get growing military retirement costs under control.