WASHINGTON – Saying Congress should keep the government's promises to veterans, Bucks County U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.) led the House charge this week to block a plan that would have slowed annual pension increases for military retirees.
With veterans at the center of the debate, the plan sailed through the House and Senate Tuesday and Wednesday and went to President Obama's desk as supporters argued for keeping promises to military personnel. The few critics said the measure was one more example of lawmakers ducking a difficult choice – one that members of both parties supported less than two months ago.
"We as Americans and as lawmakers are forever in debt to the dedication of our military men and women, who bore the pain of battle, physically and emotionally," Fitzpatrick said in a speech on the House floor. He opened with a quote from George Washington as he pitched a plan that would replace savings in the near future with budget cuts slated for 2024.
Huge majorities of lawmakers voted to undo the pension provision, which was first approved in December as part a sweeping budget deal that similarly huge majorities (including Fitzpatrick) supported.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.), accused fellow lawmakers of backtracking on a proposal to trim deficits "at the first sign of political pressure."
"I've been down that road of trading spending increases today for spending cuts later many times – it doesn't work," Flake said Wednesday as the Senate took up the bill. "For goodness sake, when deficit reduction measures get signed into law, surely at some point we need to stand by them."
Several lawmakers argued that the money spent on pensions is sapping money that the military needs for training and preparedness. But veterans' groups rallied against the cuts, and many lawmakers said a cut would be akin to turning their backs on people who served.
Flake was one of just three senators to oppose the measure Wednesday (95 supported it). The bill cleared the House Tuesday 326-90, even though 332 lawmakers had voted for the deal that approved the pension cuts in the first place.
The debate centers on slowing down pension increases for military retirees until they reach the age of 62. The reason, according to supporters of the idea, was to trim the benefits for retirees who are still of working age, and often get second jobs after leaving the military. The lauded Simpson-Bowles deficit cutting plan recommended eliminating the increases entirely.
The plan that passed in December would have reduced the cost of living increases by 1 percent, up until retirees turn 62. It would have saved $6 billion over 10 years. Once retirees turned 62, their pensions would be increased as if they had received the previously-scheduled bumps.
Veterans groups were outraged, as were many lawmakers.
"You're for vets, or you're against vets," said Sen. Mark Begich (D., Alaska), who is also facing a difficult re-election challenge.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) said veterans have "already paid their debt."
At a press conference this week White House spokesman Jay Carney said, "while we need to make some important reforms in this area, we are supportive of efforts to grandfather current recipients so they are not affected."
A report from the non-partisan Congressional Research Service found that for the enlisted personnel, the average retiree would lose $69,000 in lifetime retirement benefits, and would receive a total of about $1.67 million rather than $1.73 million. For the average officer, retirement benefits would fall by $87,000, and they would collect $3.74 million in total retirement pay, instead of $3.83 million.
Fitzpatrick is a moderate Republican from a hotly-contested swing district and also faces a potentially tough re-election fight. His plan will preserve existing retirement benefits and replace the savings by extending some of the automatic spending reductions known as the sequester into 2024.
(The sequester, of course, is itself an unpopular set of across-the-board cuts that both parties also approved and also immediately wanted repealed).
Fitzpatrick said he supported the original budget deal with the pension reduction included in order to advance a bill that could help Congress avoid its recurring fiscal showdowns. But he said the measure needed improvement – and immediately proposed a fix.
"We were able to adopt a good budget, but not nearly perfect enough," he said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wisc.), the former GOP vice presidential nominee and an author of the budget bill, said Fitzpatrick's plan "undermines" that deal. "Rather than making the tough choices, it sidesteps them," he said in a statement.
U.S. Rep. Adam Smith (D., Wash.), who debated Fitzpatrick on the House floor, said, "we've got to make some hard choices. This bill doesn't do it. It punts in every conceivable way."
By phone Wednesday, Fitzpatrick responded, "it's never wrong to keep our promises to our nation's veterans and that's what the bill was about."