House bill to raise special war pay may die in conference
By Tom Philpott
Military Update focuses on issues affecting pay, benefits and lifestyle of active and retired servicepeople. Its author, Tom Philpott, is a Virginia-based syndicated columnist and freelance writer. He has covered military issues for almost 25 years, including six years as editor of Navy Times. For 17 years he worked as a writer and senior editor for Army Times Publishing Co. Philpott, 49, enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1973 and served as an information officer from 1974-77.
The fate of two key House initiatives one for current forces, one for retirees with disabilities will be decided by a House-Senate conference committee working final compromises on the 2003 defense authorization bill. But odds of passage for each seem to be moving in opposite directions.
It will be a real surprise, say Senate sources, if conferees approve a $182 million boost in wartime special pays. The initiative is part of a $10 billion Cost of War Against Terrorism bill that House members decided to pass separately from their 2003 defense authorization bill.
Senators don't like dealing with a split authorization bill from House colleagues, and aren't sure to what extent they will recognize and negotiate the smaller bill's details against the Senate's own single authorization bill.
Moreover, the Bush administration didn't request the special pay improvements, nor has the House Appropriations Committee set aside money to pay for them. That means if the pay gains are enacted, the services likely would have to take money from other personnel accounts to pay for them.
Motivating House members was a desire to do something to recognize the pace of operations during the war on terrorism. They also noted that many of the special pays had not been adjusted in more than a decade.
The House initiative would increase imminent danger pay by $100 a month, to $250; hazardous duty pays (demolition, parachute, diving, carrier deck and flight pay) by $50 a month, and Family Separation Allowance by $25 a month. It would double the military death gratuity for a surviving family, from $6000 to $12,000. If enacted, the changes would take effect the day the bill is signed or on Oct. 1, whichever is later.
House conferees know they are underdogs on the issue, a staff member said, particularly because the initiative is outside the main defense bill. But they don't intend to "roll over and not fight for them," he said.
The word on Capitol Hill is that another House initiative, to restore full military retired pay to as many as 90,000 veterans with severe disabilities, has brighter prospects, even considering the threat of a presidential veto.
The feeling is that Dr. David Chu, undersecretary of defense for readiness and personnel, has made a more effective argument in recent days against lifting the ban on concurrent receipt of full military retired pay and tax-free disability pay from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
But his argument likely surfaced too late to prevent House-Senate conferees from, at a minimum, endorsing the House plan to restore full retired pay to roughly 90,000 military retirees with VA disability ratings of 60 percent or higher.
The strongest point Chu made, as reflected in last week's column, is that most retirees in line for concurrent receipt "aren't suffering."
But supporters of the bill ask why the Defense Department waited until now to make that case, rather than doing so in a formal report on concurrent receipt delivered to Congress in late spring.
It appears that the House concurrent receipt plan is likely to prevail because it has money behind it. The Senate plan, which would allow full concurrent receipt immediately to all 700,000 retirees with a VA disability rating, does not and also is much more likely to draw a presidential veto.
With November elections so near, and numerous lawmakers having vowed in speech after floor speech that they would support concurrent receipt, it appears that lawmakers don't want to risk disappointing retirees or service associations.
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