The House lined up Tuesday to approve legislation restoring full cost of living increases to pension benefits for military retirees, eager to reverse course on a budget cut that passed less than two months ago.
The Senate debated a similar bill as Congress hastened to respond to election-year pressure from veterans groups.
Under the bill in the Republican-controlled House, a cut in cost of living increases for military retirees under age 62 would be eliminated before it is scheduled to take effect 2015. The $7 billion cost of the measure would be more than offset by extending pre-existing cuts in some government benefit programs for an additional year, through 2024.
The legislation in the Senate also would restore the full cost of living increase, but would push federal deficits higher because it lacks reductions elsewhere in the budget. Republicans sought to change that, but it was unclear if they would succeed and there was no timetable for a final vote on the measure.
The change to cost of living benefits was the most controversial part of a budget bill that Congress approved late last year, and several lawmakers in both parties said at the time they would attempt to reverse it.
At issue was retirement income for veterans with at least 20 years of military service. The Pentagon’s figures show nearly two million retirees receive pensions at an annual cost to the government of $4.5 billion a year. Of them, about 840,000 are under 62 and would be affected by the legislation that passed in December to hold annual cost of living benefits one percentage point below the rate of inflation beginning next year.
Critics of the change said that would mean a reduction of nearly $72,000 in benefits over a lifetime for a sergeant first class who retires at age 42.
Election year politics was involved on the measure in both houses. Democrats in difficult re-election races signed on as leading sponsors of the legislation, including Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.
In the House, some Republicans were relieved that the measure was coming to a vote as a stand-alone bill, rather than as part of a measure to raise the debt limit as the GOP leadership initially proposed.
Combining the two would have required lawmakers to vote yes or no on both at the same time, meaning if they wanted to oppose the debt limit increase, they would also have been voting against a top priority of veterans groups nine months before the elections.