Senators receptive to changes in military benefits

Senators on the Armed Services Committee are open to the recommendations of a blue-ribbon panel that called for reforming military pay and compensation, suggesting that the proposals could be adopted in next year’s defense budget.

“I think they’re good,” said committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) after hearing testimony on the recommendations Wednesday.

“It was a good performance by the commissioners. They pointed out they’re doing it not to save money. If people accept that, then we’ve got a good chance,” he said.

The commission was appointed by Congress in 2013 to look at the thorny issue of reforming military pay and benefits.

The Pentagon has recommended cutting compensation, citing growing costs at a time of shrinking defense budgets.

But Congress has largely rejected those cuts after military advocacy groups lobbied hard against them.

The Pentagon again recommended trimming benefits in its fiscal 2016 budget, including raising healthcare insurance fees, slowing pay raises and cutting support for military grocery stores.

The commission, meanwhile, released 15 recommendations last week for changing how military members are compensated in terms of retirement pay and other benefits including healthcare, child care and unemployment.

The most dramatic recommendations were to overhaul the current retirement system, which benefits troops who have served for a minimum of 20 years, and to move retirees, dependents and reservists from the military’s health insurance program, Tricare, to commercial insurers.

Senators said they particularly liked the recommendations on retirement benefits, which would allow troops who served fewer than 20 years to walk away with some benefits instead of nothing.

“I think it represents a very innovative and very promising approach … people will do better under this system,” said Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), the ranking Democrat on the committee.

Both men said Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), chairman and ranking member on the Armed Services subcommittee on personnel, would hold extensive hearings on the recommendations.

The commission’s chairman, Alphonso Maldon Jr., said so far, lawmakers have given the recommendations a warm reception.

“They believe there are some really good benefits there, both the savings side of it, as well as providing additional benefits for the service member, and protecting the benefits that service members have,” he told The Hill.

“So far people seem to be pretty happy about that,” he said.

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