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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

False Choice: Veterans vs. Immigrants

An ad from Rep. Bill Cassidy attacks his Democratic opponent, Sen. Mary Landrieu, for not “fully funding veterans benefits,” even though he voted for the House version of a bipartisan budget bill that included those very same cuts. Cassidy even defended those reductions in a national radio interview.

Moreover, less than two months later, both Cassidy and Landrieu voted in favor of stand-alone legislation that ended up restoring the cuts before they ever had a chance to kick in at the end of 2015.

The Cassidy ad also sets up a false choice, claiming Landrieu voted to fund benefits for “illegal immigrants ahead of veterans.” Landrieu never voted to fund benefits for those living in the country illegally.

Cassidy is referring to a procedural vote that blocked Republican amendments to a bipartisan budget bill that avoided a looming government shutdown. That procedural vote prevented Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions from offering an amendment that would have restored a politically sensitive cut in the pensions of working-age military retirees and paid for it by closing a loophole that allows some immigrants living in the country illegally to receive child tax credits.

That amendment on military pensions never got a vote. And as we said, the point became moot when, in February, Landrieu joined an overwhelming bipartisan majority in the House and Senate to restore the military benefit reductions contained in the budget deal.

Confused? Let us walk you through the legislative history that underpins this bogus attack.

Cassidy’s Attack

Cassidy’s ad continues his push on the immigration issue, some of which we dealt with in the fact-check of a previous ad.

The latest ad features Cassidy speaking direct-to-camera:

Cassidy: What would you choose? To fund benefits for veterans or for illegal immigrants? I would never put illegal immigrants ahead of veterans. But Mary Landrieu did. Instead of fully funding veterans’ benefits, she voted to give benefits to those here illegally. No wonder she supports Barack Obama and his amnesty plan. She votes with him 97 percent of the time. Mary Landrieu represents Barack Obama. I represent you.

The legislation at the heart of this issue is the two-year bipartisan budget deal negotiated by Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan, chairs of their chambers’ budget committees. The bill, called the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, avoided any tax increase or revisions to Social Security, Medicare or other major entitlement programs, and restored some earlier “sequester” cuts to the military budget.

But to reach balance, the bill also included a provision that would have reduced of the cost-of-living adjustment for military retirees under the age of 62 to inflation minus 1 percent.

Summary of Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, Dec. 10, 2013: This provision modifies the annual cost-of-living adjustment for working-age military retirees by making the adjustments equal to inflation minus one percent. This provision would go into effect in December 2015. At age 62, the retired pay would be adjusted as if the COLA had been the full CPI adjustment in all previous years, and the service members would receive the full COLA from then on. Service members would never see a reduction in benefits from one year to the next and it will save approximately $6 billion over ten years.

The cut would have affected about 750,000 working-age military retirees, only a small fraction of the roughly 22 million that the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates have served in the U.S. armed forces.

After some military and veterans groups objected to the cuts, Sessions went on the Senate floor in an attempt to reopen the amendment process in hopes of proposing an amendment he co-sponsored that would have restored the pension cuts for military retirees. His amendment would have paid for restoring the cuts by closing a loophole that allows some immigrants in the country illegally to receive child tax credits by using a tax identification number rather than a Social Security number.

In other words, Sessions attempted to set up just the choice — veterans vs. immigrants — used in the Cassidy ad. Sessions’ efforts to change the amendment process failed 46-54. Landrieu was among those who voted against it.

There’s a bit of political history to Sessions’ amendment related to the immigrant tax credits, though, that requires explanation.

In 2011, the inspector general for the U.S. Treasury released a report stating that people “who are not authorized to work in the United States” were paid $4.2 billion in refundable tax credits. (Refundable means parents may receive refunds even when they do not owe any tax.) The IG report stated that more than 2.3 million people who did not have Social Security numbers got an average of about $1,800 each in 2010 in child tax credit refunds. (We wrote about this issue in our 2012 story “Tax Credits for Illegal Immigrants.”)

Republicans have repeatedly tried to end that practice by requiring taxpayers who collect the Additional Child Tax Credit to prove they are in the country legally. Many Democrats have opposed such efforts, arguing that the chief beneficiaries of the child tax credit are the children of immigrants in the country illegally — and most of those children, they note, are legal citizens by birth. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has successfully blocked a vote on the Republican proposals so far, summed up his opposition in an interview with the Associated Press in February 2013: “I just think the child tax credit is working just fine, and there’s no need to punish children.”

But as we said, Sessions’ amendment to the Murray-Ryan budget never actually came to a vote. A procedural vote blocked it — and perhaps other Republican amendments — from being considered. For what it’s worth, while it never came to a vote, a Landrieu campaign official told us, “Senator Landrieu obviously believes that people getting tax credits illegally is wrong and we should try to stop that. This should be easy to identify and stop.”

So why would Landrieu and other Democrats have blocked consideration of Sessions’ amendment?

Murray argued that Sessions’ motion “jeopardized” passage of the larger bipartisan budget agreement, telling The Hill that she viewed it as “an effort to bring down this bill.”

In the floor debate, Republicans and Democrats expressed a willingness, even an eagerness, to fix the military benefit issue after passage of the budget, but long before the reductions would take effect.

Murray, Dec. 17: As is true with any very difficult compromise, there are certain policy changes in this bill I would never have made on my own. Thankfully, though, we wrote this bill in a way that will allow two years before this change is implemented — two years –so that Democrats and Republicans can keep working together to improve this provision or find smarter savings elsewhere.

Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss: The budget deal before us is not perfect. There is a lot in this proposal to like and there is a lot in this proposal to dislike. But there is one provision related to military retirement pay that will certainly have to be addressed after the passage of this bill, and it is one of the provisions that, frankly, I don’t like. I am told by Pentagon officials that this provision basically came out of nowhere. I think it is terribly unfair to our men and women in uniform. They should not have a disproportionate share in our deficit reduction measures. However, I feel confident this issue will be resolved in the near term.

And that’s exactly what happened. On Feb. 11, the House voted to restore the old cost-of-living formula for all who had signed up for military service prior to 2014. The vote was 326 to 90, and Cassidy was among those who voted in favor. The next day, the Senate voted 95 to 3 for final passage — with Landrieu among those who supported it — and the president signed the repeal into law on Feb. 15.

What’s interesting about the Cassidy ad attack is that Cassidy was among those who voted on Dec. 12, 2013, to pass the Murray-Ryan budget in the House. It passed by a vote of 332-94. While the military pension issue never arose in House discussions, Cassidy was well-versed on the issue when it was raised in a radio interview with Laura Ingraham on Dec. 18, 2013, the day the budget passed the Senate. In fact, he defended the reduction.

Ingraham: You supported this budget deal and now we find out that military folks who have sacrificed so much, are being asked yet again to sacrifice — this in terms of their pensions — and yet we can’t seem to close loopholes for welfare benefits going to illegal aliens and yet you supported this, why?

Cassidy: Well, a couple of things, one there are no benefit cuts to people who are retiring, there is an adjustment to their cost of living, which starts off not for all, but those who retire before age 62. … Once you get to 62, you actually get a one-time payment that bumps you back up. But if someone retires at age 45, and she goes out and works a second job, she’s getting in her current retirement – and I’m not arguing with it, I think this is good — but to put this in perspective, 50 percent of her base pay and full medical benefits, which is probably worth another $15,000 a year for a family, and then other benefits as well. And the rationale is, she’s probably going to work, she’s only 45, and that this merely decreases her cost of living increases by .25 percent. That begins in 2015, and the next year by .5 percent, and the next year by 1 percent. So there’s no cut in benefits, there’s a cut in cost-of-living increases for those who retire when most likely they’ll still work. And their base retirement is 50 percent of their pay upon retirement. … Now, would I love it if we had to make no cuts whatsoever? That would be fantastic.

Cassidy campaign spokesman John Cummins noted that the Murray-Ryan budget passed the House under a structured rule, meaning an individual member could not amend the bill. Nonetheless, the reduction in the pensions of military retirees was a part of the bill, and Cassidy voted for the bill.

In fact, Cassidy also voted in 2011 for an alternative Republican budget plan that would have cut military pensions even more. The Republican Study Committee budget that year sought to “prevent [federal employee] early retirees from receiving COLAs until they reach age 62. This would result in a savings of $17 billion over ten years.” That was based on the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan that made clear the reduction applied to both “civilian and military retirees who retire well before a conventional retirement age.”

For Cassidy to accuse Landrieu of short-changing veterans when he voted for two budgets that included similar, or deeper, cuts — especially since Landrieu later voted to restore those cuts — is rich indeed.

We’d like to quickly address two other points made in the Cassidy ad. One is the ad’s claim that Landrieu “supports Barack Obama and his amnesty plan.” As we wrote recently in the article “Playing Politics With Immigration,” the Senate immigration bill Landrieu supported in 2013 included an earned path to citizenship, not blanket amnesty. And while Obama said the plan was “consistent with the key principles for commonsense reform,” it was a bipartisan Senate proposal, not Obama’s.

Cassidy also says Landrieu “votes with [Obama] 97 percent of the time.” That’s accurate. Congressional Quarterly did, in fact, conclude that Landrieu backed Obama 97 percent of the time in 2013. CQ found that Landrieu voted along with fellow Democrats in the Senate 90 percent of the time (a little less than the Democratic average of 94 percent), while Cassidy voted with the GOP caucus in the House 96 percent of the time (a little higher than the House Republican average of 92 percent).

So while the candidates demonstrated a largely partisan voting record, Cassidy bucked his party’s position in Congress slightly less often than Landrieu bucked hers — something, perhaps, to consider when Cassidy concludes, “Mary Landrieu represents Barack Obama, I represent you.”

— Robert Farley