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Budget Includes Repeal of Cuts for Disabled Vets

Capitol in fog.

WASHINGTON -- The planned partial repeal by Congress of a controversial military retirement cut drew praise from veterans groups Tuesday but also triggered concern that it could make a full repeal even more difficult.

A $1.1 trillion spending bill negotiated Monday includes language repealing a cut to cost-of-living increases for disabled military veterans and their survivors, correcting what many lawmakers labeled a legislative mistake in the waning days of 2013.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said the move will "right a wrong in this bill and keep faith with our veterans."

But the move won't exempt other military retirees younger than 62 from the cut, a 1 percent reduction in their annual cost-of-living adjustments starting in 2016. Veterans groups had pushed for a full repeal of the measure, saying it goes back on promises made to military members years ago.

"This is a useful first step, but the worry now is that it could make getting the whole fix more difficult," said Bob Norton, spokesman for the Military Officers Association of America.

"This is not enough. We still believe everyone's retirement should be restored. And if we can't get (lawmakers) to act quickly, this could begin to slide off the radar."

But Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, believes the partial repeal signals good news.

"I think Congress is really starting to understand that they made a tremendous error in policy here," he said.

The new budget bill, if approved, will set spending for government agencies through September and prevent another government shutdown before the fall congressional elections. The House and Senate are expected to pass the measure this week, but will need another short-term continuing resolution to keep federal operations funded until it becomes law.

The bill outlines $572 billion in defense spending for fiscal 2014, including about $85 billion for operations in Afghanistan and other overseas military contingency efforts. Combined, that's about 4 percent less than what the White House had requested in funding last spring.

Other federal agencies saw similar trims in their anticipated fiscal 2014 budgets. The Department of Veterans Affairs, however, will get almost all the discretionary funding it requested, more than $63 billion.

The spending parameters for the budget deal were outlined last month, in a compromise plan announced by budget committee chairmen Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

That outline cut about $85 billion in projected spending and got rid of mandatory sequestration cuts reviled by the Pentagon. Among the replacement savings was about $6 billion from the military retirement cut.

Veterans groups were outraged not only at the cut but also that it was done without consulting them. They noted that the legislation was thrown together so quickly that it included disabled veterans and their survivors, many of whom rely on military retirement as their sole source of income.

MOAA estimates the retirement change will cost a typical enlisted member who retires at 40 about $83,000 over 20 years, and cost a typical retired officer more than $124,000 over 20 years. That's based on an estimated retirement package totaling about $1 million over that span.

Critics have noted that retirement package is more generous than many private sector pensions, and insisted military personnel accounts must be included in deficit reduction discussions.

But MOAA officials say that cutting those retirement accounts now is premature, since a military compensation review is under way. Results from that study are expected in early 2015.

Until then, veterans advocates want military retirement to remain untouched.

Veterans of Foreign Wars spokesman Joe Davis said the organization "has not stopped working on this" and is emphasizing to lawmakers that "this fix doesn't go far enough."

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., has promised hearings on the issue in coming months, and at least 15 lawmakers have offered legislation to repeal the retirement change.

But many advocates viewed the new budget bill as the best hope for a quick repeal. Next month, Congress takes up debate on the fiscal 2015 budget, a lengthy process that could overwhelm the veterans' repeal efforts.

Norton said he and others will continue to push for a quick fix.

"The more days this retirement cut is out there, the more it starts to eat away at the confidence of our career force," he said. "We need to move on this now."

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