WASHINGTON — The Senate took the first step Monday toward approving legislation that restores full cost-of-living increases to pension benefits for military retirees under age 62, although it’s unclear when the measure may pass.
Monday’s vote was 94 to 0 to advance the bill over an initial hurdle. As drafted by majority Democrats, the $7 billion, 10-year cost of the legislation would add to the deficit. Republicans want cuts elsewhere in the budget to prevent that from happening.
The measure would reverse one part of a budget bill that cleared Congress late last year. Under the provision, cost-of-living increases in pension benefits for military retirees under age 62 would be held below the rate of inflation beginning in 2015. Veterans groups have strongly protested the change.
Also on Monday, House Republican leaders were considering a plan to reverse the cut to military pensions as the price for increasing the government’s borrowing cap. House Republican aides said party leaders presented the idea to rank-and-file GOP lawmakers at a meeting in the Capitol on Monday evening.
It is not clear whether Democrats will support the plan. Their votes would be needed to help pass the measure since some Republicans refuse to vote to raise the debt ceiling under any circumstances.
A spokesman for House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, said Democrats will continue to insist that any debt limit legislation omit add-ons, even bipartisan proposals such as repealing military pension cuts.
White House spokesman Jay Carney sidestepped a question about whether President Obama would sign debt ceiling legislation that included restoration of full benefits for military retirees, reiterating the White House position that Obama would not negotiate on raising the borrowing limit.
“I'm not going to get into a ‘what if this were in the bill or that were in the bill,’ ” Carney told reporters. “Our position has not changed. It hasn’t changed for a long, long time. We’re not negotiating over Congress’s responsibility to pay its bills.”
Carney added, “We’re not going to pay ransom on behalf of the American people to Republicans in Congress so that Republicans in Congress fulfill their constitutional responsibilities.”
The cuts to cost-of-living pension increases for military retirees under the age of 62 were part of December’s budget agreement, backed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin.
The reduction has sparked an uproar among advocates for veterans, and lawmakers in both parties want to repeal it.
The 10-year, $6 billion cost of canceling the cut would be borne by extending for an additional year a 2 percentage point cut to Medicare reimbursements to doctors and hospitals, as well as cuts to a handful of other benefit programs. Those cuts, known as sequestration, would now extend through 2024.
Time is running out for lawmakers to act to lift the debt limit. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew told lawmakers last week that Treasury will exhaust by Feb. 27 its ability to employ accounting maneuvers to borrow to pay its bills. Lew told congressional leaders on Monday that he had begun tapping two large government worker retirement funds to clear room under the debt limit.