"The military is at a crossroads, fast growing benefits are threatening to displace investments in readiness of our armed services," Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. said.

"The military is at a crossroads, fast growing benefits are threatening to displace investments in readiness of our armed services," Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. said. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Complicated Vote Sends Simple Message from Congress: Don't Mess With Vets

Senators voted overwhelmingly to restore $6 billion in proposed veterans' benefit cuts, but paid with further sequester offsets. By Stacy Kaper

By a 95-3 vote, the Senate on Wednesday approved a House-passed that would unwind $6 billion in cuts to veterans' benefits from last year's budget deal that proved to be a political fiasco for all involved.

The conclusion of the congressional battle to unwind the cuts culminates several days of flip-flops from Democrats and Republicans. Lawmakers ultimately concluded it was shrewder to put to rest a rising political vulnerability with veterans than continue petty-looking squabbles over offsets that are lost on the public at large. Democratic Sen. Thomas Carper of Delaware, and Republicans Sens. Dan Coats of Indiana and Jeff Flake of Arizona voted against the bill.

Flake said that he believed that the cut in benefits was modest—far smaller than what was recommended by the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan. And in a speech on the Senate floor earlier Wednesday, he said that he voted against last year's budget deal because the spending cuts did not go far enough.

Flake said that a vote against restoring the COLA cuts is not tantamount to turning against the troops.

"The military is at a crossroads, fast growing benefits are threatening to displace investments in readiness of our armed services," he said. "So I would encourage my colleagues to take a hard look at the fiscal mess we face before we vote to roll back one of the few deficit reduction measures that the president and Congress has agreed to."

A spokeswoman for Coats said he voted against the bill because of how the spending would be offset. Coats, the spokesman said, did not trust that the Senate would stick to the additional sequester cuts. Coats instead favors a spending offset offered by New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte, which would make it more difficult to qualify for a child tax credit—particularly for undocumented immigrants.

Carper's office did not immediately explain the reason for his "no" vote.

But with 95 Senators voting in favor of the measure, the takeaway is clear: Don't mess with vets, especially in an election year.

The legislation that now heads to President Obama's desk for his signature, would pay for restoring a 1-percentage-point adjustment to cost-of-living increases in military retirees' pensions by extending the mandatory sequester cuts an additional year.

Senate Democrats had spent much of Tuesday insisting it was imperative to pass a "clean" bill without an offset ASAP, arguing that veterans had already "paid in full" their debt to society, even though none of the offsets being discussed would have touched other veterans' benefits or even come out of the Defense Department.

They were pushing a Senate bill from embattled Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor that would have unwound the cuts without paying for them.

But between the House's undeniably overwhelming vote on its bill Tuesday—326-90, including 120 Democrats—and the two parties' inability to agree on amendments to the Pryor bill, Senate Democratic leadership abruptly changed course Tuesday, scheduling a vote on the House bill.

A few hours ahead of the vote, Democrats appeared to be caught off-guard.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin said he didn't know if he would support the House pay-for and needed to review the details, including how he had voted on it previously.

"I don't know," he said. "There's a little uncertainty in my mind as to which particular extension this is."

Levin said Democrats generally still preferred a bill without a pay-for and that his personal preference was one that would close offshore tax havens.

"I think most Democrats want a clean bill. If our choice is a good pay-for… I would clearly vote for that…. If it's a pure COLA restoration, I'm all in favor for that, but in terms of the other options, I just have to withhold judgment until I know more about it."

The House pay-for had gotten mixed reviews from Senate Republicans on Tuesday, with many continuing to push for a proposal from New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte to close the child tax credit to undocumented immigrants.

"I think sequestration was a terrible mistake to start with," said Arizona Republican John McCain on Wednesday.

As Democrats tested the waters with Republicans over the pay-for fight, it appeared last week that the GOP would balk at even debating a bill that didn't have a pay-for. But Republicans reversed course on Monday, joining with Democrats unanimously to take up the Pryor bill, which was left in the dust by Wednesday.

In the end, with a snowstorm threat pushing up a looming recess, lawmakers gave up their pay-for fights and just wanted to check the box, claim victory, and go home.

"My inclination is, I just want to solve this problem," said Maine independent Angus King on Wednesday when he had joined in a Democratic press conference decrying attempts to pay for the legislation the previous day.

"And the House has now recessed, so if we do something different, it gets delayed," he said. "Let's do it."