Senate Backs 1.6% Troop Pay Raise, BAH Cuts, Health Care Reform

Homes

The U.S. Senate has approved a fiscal 2017 defense authorization that calls for a 1.6 percent military pay raise, reduced housing allowances and changes to the health care system.

The upper chamber of Congress on Tuesday voted 85-13 in favor of the legislation, known as the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, which sets policy and spending targets for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

The $602 billion bill would curb the military's Basic Allowance for Housing, or BAH, for new entrants beginning in 2018 by only covering what they actually pay in rent and also reduce the combined value of the benefit received by military couples or roommates, according to text of the legislation.

The bill also calls for a 1.6 percent pay raise for troops, updating the military health care and weapons acquisition systems, and requiring women to register for the draft.

"The NDAA contains the first major update to Pentagon organization in 30 years and sweeping reforms to the defense acquisition system necessary to harness American innovation and preserve our military’s technological edge," Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement afterward.

"The legislation also modernizes the military health system to provide military service members, retirees, and their families with higher quality care, better access to care, and a better experience of care," he added.

Now that both the Senate and House of Representatives have approved their versions of the annual defense authorization bill, a conference committee will convene to work out the differences between the proposals. It wasn't immediately clear when that work was expected to conclude. The House this week began work on a separate defense spending, or appropriations, bill.

The authorization bills contain major areas of disagreement between the two chambers, including on the issues of the military pay raise and housing allowances. The House, for example, pushed for a 2.1 percent increase in pay in keeping with private-sector wage growth and didn't include the provision to overhaul the Basic Allowance for Housing.

The Senate wants the housing benefit for military troops to be more like the one offered to the State Department's foreign service officers, who are compensated for actual rental or housing costs.

The Senate legislation calls for beginning Jan. 1, 2018, setting the allowance for new entrants at "the actual monthly cost of housing" or an amount "based on the costs of adequate housing" for each military housing area, according to a copy of the legislation. It also states two or more service members occupying the same housing would split the allowance.

Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine introduced amendments to strike the language from the bill.

But they -- along with many others -- weren't debated due to a procedural obstruction from Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican of Utah, who refused to allow a vote on other measures after his proposal to prevent the government from indefinitely detaining American citizens captured on U.S. territory wasn't taken up.

McCain blasted the parliamentary tactics, saying such maneuvering was never intended to be used to stifle debate and action in the upper chamber.

"That's not the way the Senate was intended to function," he said during a speech on the floor. "That's not the way the Senate should function."

McCain continued his criticism of the tactic in his statement.

"I regret that the Senate was unable to debate and vote on several matters critical to our national security, many of which enjoyed broad bipartisan support," he said. "In particular, I am deeply disappointed the Senate was not able to increase the number of special immigrant visas for Afghans who risked their lives to help America in a time of war, and whose lives are still at risk today.

"Too often throughout this process, a single senator was able to bring the Senate’s work on our national defense to a halt," McCain added. "This was a breakdown in the decorum of the Senate, and one that will have serious consequences."

The chamber, however, was able to vote on some amendments, including one to strike a provision that would have crafted a pilot program to privatize some military commissary stores.

On health care, the Senate bill would authorize three "new and improved" Tricare plans called Tricare Prime, Tricare Choice and Tricare Supplemental. It would eliminate existing cost-shares for services provided under the current Tricare Standard plan and replaces them with fixed co-payments.

--Brendan McGarry can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.

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