Pressure rises to ease military pay law

By Tom Philpott

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and other Republican leaders are urging President Bush to drop his veto threat and allow Congress to further ease the century-old law that bans “concurrent receipt” of full military retired pay and Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) disability compensation.
Capitol Hill sources said career retirees who now forfeit part or all of their earned annuities to draw tax-free VA disability pay are, with surprising effectiveness, threatening House Republicans with election defeat next year if they don’t back up words of support for concurrent receipt with action.
Action this year, if the Bush administration continues to oppose concurrent receipt, would be for Republicans to join Democrats in signing a discharge petition by Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga., to force a vote on HR 303, legislation that would end the ban on concurrent receipt for all 710,000 retirees who served 20 or more years and have VA-rated disabilities.
Marshall’s petition has turned an uncomfortable spotlight on Republicans who cosponsored HR 303, the Retired Pay Restoration Act, but balk at forcing a vote on it because Bush opposes the bill.
Only one Republican, Tom Tancredo of Colorado, has signed the discharge petition.
Congressional sources said other Republicans have warned Hastert they might break ranks too if the White House can’t be persuaded to accept relaxation of the concurrent receipt ban before the August recess.
Rep. Michael Bilirakis, R-Fla., author of HR 303, is said to be pressing for the compromise the House reached last year before it fell victim to Bush’s veto threat. It would have allowed a five year phase-in of full concurrent receipt for 90,000 of the most seriously disabled retirees, those with VA disability ratings of 60 percent or higher.
The pressure is almost as intense now as last December when Sen. John Warner, R-Va., persuaded Bush to accept a more targeted compromise, the Combat-Related Special Compensation, which took effect June 1.
CRSC, in effect, is concurrent receipt by another name. But eligibility is limited to roughly 35,000 retirees who have permanent injuries for which they received the Purple Heart or who have disabilities of 60 percent or higher tied to combat, combat training or an instrumentality of war such as exposure to the deadly defoliant Agent Orange in the Vietnam War.
The Bilirakis compromise seems the high end of what House leaders might settle for during high-level discussions now under way with the White House.
The least costly step Congress might be able to take and still crow about would be to extend CRSC eligibility to all reserve retirees with combat-related disabilities. Only a few reserve retirees are eligible for CRSC under current law.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at:
milupdate@aol.com