Sunday, December 16, 2007

Congress finally approves authorization bill

By Rick Maze - Staff writer
Posted : Friday Dec 14, 2007 14:29:13 EST

A $696.4 billion defense policy bill cleared its final congressional hurdle and is on its way to the White House for President Bush’s signature.

The bill, passed on a 90-3 vote, includes a 3.5 percent military pay raise, a Wounded Warrior package aimed at helping injured combat veterans and their families, makes significant increases in the size of the Army and Marine Corps and includes almost $100 billion in weapons funding.

“The pay increase won’t make them rich, but they didn’t join to get rich,” said Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader, referring to service members. “It will help them pay bills.”

The bill includes authorization to add 13,000 active-duty soldiers and 9,000 Marines to the force, and orders the services to stop converting military medical jobs into civilian positions.

Also in the bill is a one-year freeze on any fee increases for people using the military’s Tricare health insurance program.

There are two major benefits improvements for disabled retirees eligible for both military retired pay and veteran’s disability compensation. First, veterans with disability ratings of less than 100 percent who nevertheless are considered fully disabled because they are determined to be unemployable will get full concurrent receipt of their retired pay and disability compensation — although not right away. Second, troops who are medically retired with less than 20 years of service with combat-related injuries will be eligible for Combat Related Special Compensation.

Reid, one of the chief sponsors of the two concurrent receipt provisions, said the bill makes great progress toward keeping promises made in 1999 when lawmakers began to eliminate a policy set in the 19th century that required a dollar-for-dollar offset in retired pay for those also receiving disability compensation for the same period of service.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Calif., the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman who helped negotiate details, said the peacetime defense bill is a critically important piece of legislation for lawmakers to pass by the end of the year because troops would not get the Jan. 1 increase in pay and benefits if it doesn’t. To pass the bill, the Senate interrupted debate on other measures.

The all-ranks pay increase should first appear in mid-January paychecks as long as President Bush signs the measure by about Dec. 31, because the Defense Finance and Accounting Service generally needs about 10 days to make major changes in the military payroll. There is another reason why it is important the bill be signed by Dec. 31: authority for two dozen recruiting and retention programs — including enlistment and re-enlistment bonuses for active and reserve forces — expires on Jan. 1 unless extended. The bill includes a one-year extension.

Congress and the Bush administration had strong disagreements about details of the bill, and veto threats even hung over the measure, but all of the major problems appear to be resolved, according to House and Senate aides. The final hurdle was overcome when the Senate agreed to give up on plans to attach an expansion of federal hate-crimes legislation to the defense bill.

Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., the House Armed Services Committee chairman who headed the negotiating conference where the compromise bill was written, called the measure “the best bill in decades that this Congress has put forward.”

“It is good for the troops, good for our families, it will help improve readiness of our armed forces and it will bring new significant oversight to the Department of Defense in areas where oversight was sorely needed,” Skelton said Dec. 12 as the House passed the bill by a 370-49 vote.

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