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Lawmakers fail to stop COLA rollback plan

Dec. 18, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Patty Murray
Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., the architect of a bipartisan budget deal negotiated with Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the House Budget Committee chairman, discusses the compromise spending plan during a television news interview Dec. 18 in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)
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Lawmakers scrambled Wednesday to reverse a plan to reduce annual military retirement pay increases for working-age retirees under 62, but were unsuccessful as the Senate approved that change as part of a broader budget bill on a vote of 64-36.

The reductions would not begin until late 2015, leaving plenty of time to reverse or amend the plan. But for now, it will take another specific legislative effort to affect what will shortly become law with President Obama’s signature.

On Tuesday, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., used a parliamentary procedure to call for a vote on proposing amendments to the bill, including one to reverse the reductions to retirees’ annual cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA.

But Sessions’ measure failed along party lines, with Democrat Kay Hagan of North Carolina as the lone senator to break with her caucus and support him.

Stripped of the ability to offer amendments, some senators have now proposed stand-alone bills that would provide alternative cost savings, either to overturn the entire provision or carving an exemption for medically retired personnel — the most serious service-related injured troops — for retaining their full COLA in the coming years.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Virginia Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, all Democrats, have introduced the Military Retirement Restoration Act, which would offer alternative savings of more than $6 billion by tightening regulations on U.S. companies that shelter funds in foreign tax havens.

Other senators, including Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz., have said the Senate Armed Services Committee will review the provision.

The budget proposal will reduce the COLA to 1 percentage point below the annual change in the Consumer Price Index. The move is expected to save about $6 billion over 10 years.

The broader budget bill, forged by Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., allows slightly more than $1 trillion in discretionary federal spending for fiscal 2014, which started Oct. 1 — about halfway between the House and Senate starting positions on the budget.

But the provision to reduce military retirees’ COLAs appeared to fly under the radar until lawmakers including Sessions, Ayotte, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., noted that the cuts also would affect those severely injured from military service, the medically retired.

The Military Coalition, an umbrella organization for more than 30 military and veterans’ advocacy groups that share a common legislative agenda, has expressed outrage over the planned reductions to military retirement.

“We are not against the Budget Control Act, but we are against doing it on the backs of our military and our families,” retired Vice Adm. Norb Ryan, president of the Military Officers Association of America, said Tuesday.

Murray agreed and has vowed to fix the measure.

“I have dedicated much of my career fighting for military families and veterans ... as is true with every difficult compromise, there are things in this bill that I would oppose,” she said. “Thankfully, this will not go into effect for two years.”

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