WASHINGTON -- Many Republican senators recently said they opposed renewing long-term unemployment benefits on principle -- particularly the principle that they didn't like the crummy scheme Democrats came up with to pay for the aid.
It turned out the principle applied only to the unemployed. Nearly all GOP senators voted Wednesday for the very same plan when it was aimed at helping people who retired early from the military.
Federal benefits for Americans who have been searching for work for more than 26 weeks -- a population that's approaching 2 million -- expired on Dec. 28. The cost of providing those benefits used to be added to the national debt, but Republicans lately have been objecting and insisting that Democrats find cuts elsewhere in the budget to offset the aid.
One such offset involved extending the Medicare cuts from the budget sequestration into 2024, saving close to $6 billion. It's a somewhat dubious cut in that it comes from spending set to occur just after the current 10-year "budget window" and in that Congress could easily reverse it before it happens.
Indeed, Republican senators interviewed by HuffPost at the time noted those facts, often pointedly.
"I'm tired of these supposed pay-fors where you spend money the first year, and you don't pay for it, what, until 10 years later. It's literally a joke," said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). "If you think this emergency, temporary, 14th unemployment extension of benefits ... if you think that's so important, find a real pay-for."
"The reason we didn't agree to it is we actually have principles," Johnson added.
"We are concerned about doing this right," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said, noting that Republicans came up with an alternative plan that Democrats rejected. "We came up with a very reasonable way of paying for the extension."
Perhaps the senator who seemed most concerned about using the far-off cut was Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a former head of the Office of Management and Budget in the George W. Bush administration.
"The issue we raised from the very start with them was it's got to be within the budget window. Otherwise, it's totally inconsistent with the budget act that just passed, and it busts the caps," Portman said, referring to the budget deal crafted in December by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), which many tea party Republicans opposed but Portman backed.
"We made that clear at the beginning with them, that there's no Republican who can go along with busting the caps by going outside the window to pay for something, and it's a direct violation of what we just voted on," Portman said. "For me to then turn around and bust the caps on the budget that I just took a lot of heat for supporting would be bad policy and inconsistent with everything I just stood for a few weeks ago," he added.
But then a new issue came along. In order for the Ryan-Murray budget to replace some sequestration cuts, Congress raised about $6 billion by slapping a 1 percent cut on cost-of-living raises for service members who retire before age 62. It wasn't as much as was called for in the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan that many Republicans hailed (Simpson-Bowles proposed cutting COLA hikes for young retirees altogether), but the cut sparked an outcry that reached a crescendo this week.
Portman, Johnson, Collins and all but three other senators who were present Wednesday voted that day to repeal the military retiree cut -- and pay for it with the same extension of Medicare cuts at which they scoffed to cover unemployment benefits.
Johnson said in a new statement that he had never supported the military COLA cut and that although he voted for it, he would have backed the budget deal without the cut.
"I objected to the military COLA being singled out in the budget agreement. Had it been up to me, I would have removed it from the budget agreement, which would have resulted in a [Congressional Budget Office] score showing $16 billion in deficit reduction versus the $23 billion as passed," Johnson said. "The COLA bill accomplished that same objective, which is why I voted yes."
According to Portman's office, the senator changed his stance on using Medicare cuts that extend into 2024 after the Congressional Budget Office came out last week with its latest budget assessments that extend into 2024. Portman would now favor using those Medicare savings and some other cuts to extend jobless aid for three months, his office said, and believes the aid could have been added to the military bill. He is also seeking unemployment benefits reforms in return for a full year's worth of aid.
Collins did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
Not every Republican was willing to flip, though.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) took to the floor Wednesday to extoll military service, but also to note that a 1 percent cut in the growth of benefits, often received while former military members have other jobs, wasn't an unreasonable way to pay for some modest deficit reduction.
Flake voted against the COLA plan, as did Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), whose reasoning was the same for the military retirees plan as it had been for the unemployed plan.
"The downside of going for [the Medicare cut] plan is we thought what we proposed was reasonable, and that was a pay-for within the 10-year window," Coats had said about the unemployment benefits proposal. "We're trying to have some fiscal discipline, and we thought, 'C'mon, one year?' We do it over 10 years and they don't want to pay for anything until the 11th year."
A spokeswoman for Coats said his reasoning hadn't changed.
"For Senator Coats, this wasn’t a vote opposing a repeal of these cuts since he supported an alternative measure to restore military COLAs," said spokeswoman Tara DiJolio. "This was a vote against spending more taxpayer dollars with only a promise of paying for it 10 years later."
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.
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