WASHINGTON — The House voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to restore full cost-of-living increases to pension benefits for younger military retirees, responding eagerly to election-year pressure from veterans groups.
The Senate debated a similar bill as lawmakers hastened to reverse course on the most controversial cut contained in budget legislation approved less than two months ago.
Approval of the measure was never in doubt in the House, where the final vote was 326-90.
Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., said the bill would “protect the promises that this nation has made to our veterans.” He called on Congress to “care for those who have borne the battle and to send that message to all who can hear it.”
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., argued that overturning last year’s relatively modest change in pensions would eventually cause military readiness to erode as the Pentagon struggles to adjust to budget restrictions.
“We’ve got to make some hard choices. This bill doesn’t do it. It punts in every conceivable way,” he said.
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 Medicare and other government programs for an additional year, through 2024.
The change to cost-of-living benefits was 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 quickly in the new year.
At issue was retirement income for veterans with at least 20 years of military service. Pentagon figures show nearly 2 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 1 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.
The legislation in the Democratic-controlled Senate also would restore the full cost-of-living increase, but would push federal deficits higher because it lacks reductions elsewhere in the budget.
Election year politics was involved in the measure in both houses. Senate 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.