WASHINGTON – Troops will see yet another low pay raise next year if President Barack Obama has his way, but the president's decision to limit an increase to 1.6 percent is not necessarily a done deal. The House is still pushing for a higher 2.1-percent raise, enough to keep service member pay in step with the private sector. This week, the House resumes what are likely to be hard-fought negotiations with the Senate, which backs the lower Obama raise. The outcome of the pay fight could come within weeks but may stretch into the winter as Congress grapples with a defense spending plan during a presidential election year. The House effort might be a longshot. It lost the fight last year for a 2.3-percent pay hike amid Senate opposition and an order last summer by Obama to limit the increase to 1.3 percent. "Our men and women in uniform deserve a full pay raise," Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., said in a statement. "The global security environment is not getting any safer and deployments aren't getting any easier, yet our military families are constantly asked to do more with less." Heck called Obama's pay raise order late last month "unacceptable" and said he is fighting for the higher amount. He is a key player because he chairs the military personnel subcommittee that deals with pay issues and also is one of the House negotiators trying to hammer out an agreement with the Senate.
Troop raises have been capped at 1.7 percent or below since 2010, reining in big boosts during the post 9/11 period and earlier Iraq War when annual paychecks surged from 3 to nearly 7 percent. By law, military pay is usually supposed to increase by at least 2.1 percent to keep up with private-sector wage growth, but the president has the power to set it at other levels. The difference in Obama's pay decision and the House plan is about $11 per month for an E4 with over three years of service and nearly $28 for an O3 with more than six years of service, according to the Armed Services Committee. That has rankled Heck and Republican hawks in the House such as Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who is spearheading higher pay as part of a controversial $18-billion increase in defense spending for the coming year. The money would come from the Islamic State war budget and cause operations in Iraq and Syria to run out of funding at the end of April, requiring new spending legislation then. The Pentagon has called the $18-billion hike that includes the pay hike a gimmick and a gamble. But the full House passed the plan earlier this year as part of its annual defense policy bill, the National Defense Authorization Act. This week, Thornberry, Heck and other House members, including Democrats, resumed conference negotiations with senators on a final NDAA. A finished bill must go back to each chamber for a vote. "The House-passed NDAA provides the full raise our troops are entitled to, while blocking the president's ability to reduce troop pay again," Thornberry said earlier this month. "I hope this provision becomes law when the conference bill comes to the House and Senate floor." But the Senate has rejected the higher pay raise. In May, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee military personnel subcommittee and crafted the chamber's pay raise policy, said he would have liked to dole out a higher increase but was doubtful the money could be found to support it. The defense budget is subject to annual spending caps, making a simple increase in spending impossible without a bipartisan deal in Congress. With no deal in sight, House Republicans are looking to raid the war budget for the money while the Senate has been more cautious about staying within the spending limits. Obama announced in late August that he was again setting raises low to save money during the tight fiscal times. "As our country continues to recover from serious economic conditions affecting the general welfare, however, we must maintain efforts to keep our nation on a sustainable fiscal course," Obama said in a statement. "This effort requires tough choices, especially in light of budget constraints."