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A routine bill for a cost-of-living increase for military veterans and surviving spouses just got delayed for months because of a secret hold by an unidentified Senate Republican.
by Jamie Reno | September 27, 2012 8:35 PM EDT
In what appears to be an election-year stunt that quickly backfired, an unidentified Republican senator on Thursday briefly blocked disabled veterans and their survivors from getting a cost-of-living adjustment to their benefits, according to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
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The Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) increase for Department of Veterans Affairs benefits, which typically passes the House and Senate without opposition, was cleared by Senate Democrats but placed on a "secret hold" Thursday by an unidentified Republican senator, Murray says.
Under Senate rules, a single senator is allowed to anonymously keep a bill from advancing toward a vote with what is called a "secret hold." The senator in this case has not been identified.
The measure, HR 4114, which passed the House on July 9, provides a 1.9 percent increase in disability benefits for veterans and surviving spouses, matching the planned increase in Social Security benefits.
In a statement Thursday, Sen. Murray said the effort to block the bill was "stunning. Particularly because we still don't have any indication why someone would block a cost-of-living adjustment for veterans and their surviving spouses, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet."
Murray said this adjustment for disabled veterans is "hard earned and well deserved. My hope is that whichever senator has decided to hold up this bill will at least come forward to own up to it. That way we can move forward to overcome their oppositions and get our veterans the support they need."
After Murray released her statement, Republicans made what appears to be a hasty retreat. A spokesman for Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the ranking Republican on the Senate veterans' committee, announced Thursday afternoon that the issue had been resolved and there was no hold.
Who originally placed the secret hold, and why? No one seems to know or wants to say.
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Michael Brumas, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, tells The Daily Beast, "I don't know of any secret holds. This was a late request and by the time the Senate adjourned not all 100 senators had had a chance to sign off on it. The bill was being reviewed in the waning hours before the Senate finished its work. Unfortunately, the Senate adjourned before the clearance process was finished. There was an effort to get this cleared before Congress adjourned early Saturday morning. But it's now been cleared by both sides for action when the Senate reconvenes."
"It cleared every Democrat in the Senate, but there was still a hold on the bill, so obviously it had to be from someone on the Republican side," said Matt McAlvanah, a spokesman for Senator Murray. "It lasted until we adjourned, nearly 72 hours. We then went into recess, with the Republicans still having a hold on this bill. So we put out a release today saying someone should step forward."
"Now we hear that Republicans are saying there is no longer a hold. That's fine, but it does little good now because we're not coming back until postelection. Now we have to pass this bill by the skin of our teeth just to make sure the VA can process the checks. It's going to be a close call."
Because of the delay, the Senate, which is out of session until Nov. 13, will have to vote on the legislation on the very same day it reconvenes in order for its payments to get out on time, according to a statement from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"Should Congress pass the COLA after that date, VA would have to make complex programming changes to the system that could not be accomplished in time to pay the COLA increase on January 1," according to the VA release. "Consequently, the December COLA increase would have to be paid retroactively."
If the bill doesn't pass that first day the Senate returns, the effects could be significant, especially for disabled veterans and their families on fixed incomes, says Paul Sullivan, a Gulf War veteran and former director of Veterans for Common Sense who now works at Bergmann & Moore, a law firm that specializes in VA disability law.
"We don't want to scare our veterans. But delays can be harmful," Sullivan tells The Daily Beast. "Veterans already jump through enough hoops to obtain disability benefits. Delaying what should be an automatic process increases uncertainty in the lives of our veterans, and that is wrong."
Delaying COLA is "highly unusual, and unconscionable," said Sullivan, noting that as reporters started making phone calls, the hold was apparently withdrawn. "It shows the power of exposing these kind of shenanigans, which are so irresponsible," he said.
The COLA increase, which is designed to offset inflation and other economic factors, was cleared last year without incident. No holds, no delays. By voice vote, the Senate passed S 894, which directed the VA to give disabled veterans the same increase on the same effective date as the rise in Social Security.
"We do not have a hold on that piece of legislation. Someone was saying it was being blocked, but not by us."
Joe Kasper, deputy chief of staff for Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a Marine veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, says, "Without really knowing the reason for the holdup, it's anybody's guess why there was a block. It's one thing to say stuff like this happens from time to time, but meeting the needs of veterans is a top priority that consistently receives bipartisan support. Often, there are real concerns about funding and offsets, and if that's the case, then there needs to be strong push for resolution. But until it's known who and why [it was held], there's not much available to justify the move."
"It's clear that after being caught red-handed, the Republican caucus decided not to snitch on whichever member would stoop low enough to put a hold on support for disabled veterans," a senior Democratic Senate aide, who asked for anonymity because of concerns about possible professional repercussions, told The Daily Beast. "While these backroom tactics are pretty reprehensible, it will likely allow them to keep the identity of the senator who held this up from ever being revealed."
Meanwhile, rumors are flying on The Hill about the mystery senator who allegedly placed this secret hold.
Moira Bagley, a spokeswoman for Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who several sources said they suspected could be responsible, flatly denied it. "It's not us," she said. "We do not have a hold on that piece of legislation. Someone was saying it was being blocked, but not by us."
When the House passed the bill in July, House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said: "Veterans have enough to worry about without the added stress of not knowing if their cost-of-living adjustments will be held up in a political tug-of-war. We have an obligation to the men and women who served this nation to make sure we are doing everything we can to keep the promise made to them."
This apparent short-lived hold comes just one day after Senate Republicans blocked passage of the Veterans Jobs Corps Act of 2012, which would have established a $1 billion program putting veterans to work on federal lands and in local police and fire departments.
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