Capitol Hill is turning its attention to a 5.2% pay bump troops are slated to get next year after lawmakers struck a deal to avert a default on U.S. debts that capped government spending.
The deal limited spending levels for next year's defense budget at the same amount of money the Biden administration requested in its budget submission to Congress earlier this year, and a 5.2% raise was included in that request.
One senator is seeking reassurances the raise will be safe in the upcoming defense policy bill. In a letter dated June 5, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., urged the leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee to ensure that this year's National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, endorses a 5.2% pay raise for troops.
Gillibrand's office told Military.com that they have not heard anything to suggest the raise is on the chopping block. But the senator sent the letter to committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., and ranking member Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., "to make sure it doesn't happen," her office said.
"As you know, people are the armed services' greatest asset," Gillibrand, a member of the Armed Services Committee, wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by Military.com. "As you also know, we are facing a recruiting crisis, making retention of our service members' expertise and experience more important than ever.
"Meanwhile, 24% of service members face food insecurity, and chronic unemployment and underemployment of military spouses compounds the financial difficulties service members and their families face," the letter continued. "We cannot afford to make budgetary trade-offs that negatively impact those in uniform."
A spokesperson for the Armed Services Committee declined to comment on the letter or how the panel plans to handle the pay raise when it considers its version of the NDAA later this month.
But the rate of the annual raise is set by a separate law that ties it to what's called the Employment Cost Index, essentially putting the pay bump on autopilot unless Congress intervenes. That means the 5.2% increase will take effect in January unless Congress passes a bill that specifically lowers the raise, something that would undoubtedly cause political blowback.
Eager to demonstrate its support for the troops, Congress typically enthusiastically endorses the raise requested by the president.
The latest talk about the pay raise comes amid wrangling over whether to approve more defense spending than Congress agreed to in a bill passed last week and signed by the president over the weekend.
Under a deal reached by President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the U.S. government's borrowing authority was raised in exchange for caps on government spending. The deal meant the U.S. avoided an unprecedented default and the economic calamity that would follow, including the possibility of delayed paychecks and benefits for service members and veterans.
But defense hawks fumed that the deal accepted Biden's defense budget request for fiscal 2024. Republicans had spent months arguing that Biden's proposal, which amounts to a 3% increase over this year's defense budget, was actually a cut when accounting for inflation and that it failed to provide enough resources to outcompete China.
Defense hawks also fretted that the cap could hinder efforts to provide more funding to Ukraine after the current pot of money for supplying weapons to the Ukrainians runs out, which is expected to happen in the fall.
In exchange for agreeing to speed up the Senate's normally laborious process for voting on bills, defense hawks secured a commitment from chamber leadership to move on a supplemental spending bill for Ukraine and other defense needs that would skirt the debt limit deal's cap.
"This debt ceiling deal does nothing to limit the Senate's ability to appropriate emergency supplemental funds to ensure our military capabilities are sufficient to deter China, Russia and other adversaries," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the Senate floor Thursday ahead of the vote to approve the debt limit deal.
But on Monday, McCarthy threw cold water on the idea of Congress approving more money for defense than was agreed to in the debt limit bill.
"If they think they're writing a supplemental because they want to go around an agreement we just made, it's not going anywhere," McCarthy told Punchbowl News.
McCarthy also told CNN he thinks there can be "efficiencies" found in the defense budget, which covers the Pentagon and other national security spending.
In her letter, Gillibrand expressed concern that parts of the president's budget request could be sidelined in favor of "congressional priorities" as lawmakers work to stay within the cap.
"I am writing to ask that, despite the fiscal restraints imposed by the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023, this pay increase be included in the chairman's mark of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2024," she wrote.
The Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to consider its version of the NDAA behind closed doors starting June 21. The House Armed Services Committee will debate its version of the bill during a public session the same day.
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.