Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., controls the Senate schedule, which will include several items related in the coming weeks to the military and veterans (T.J. Kirkpatrick / Getty Images)
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Congress will return from the November elections to face unfinished business vital to the military and veterans — with the path to completion a cluttered minefield.
Even the easiest issue to resolve — ensuring veterans get the same 1.7 percent cost-of-living adjustment going to Social Security beneficiaries and military retirees — could prove difficult if lawmakers link a vote on that must-pass legislation to another vote on more contentious issues.
The House of Representatives has passed a bill to provide disabled veterans and survivors who receive Veterans Affairs Department dependency and indemnity compensation the same COLA as Social Security recipients and military retirees, but the Senate has yet to act.
With a final vote required by the first week of December to guarantee that the COLA boost appears in January paychecks, Senate leaders will determine when to schedule the vote. They could force the Senate to first vote on other issues, such as delayed appointments to executive positions, before voting on the veterans' COLA.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., controls the Senate schedule. At press time, a Reid spokesman had not responded to questions about the post-election legislative plan.
More difficult tasks are the 2013 defense authorization bill — which sets policy for a wide range of initiatives, including extending bonus and special pay programs beyond Dec. 31 — and finding a way to avoid the looming Jan. 2 across-the-board cuts, which threaten to slash defense spending.
The House passed its version of the defense bill in May, but the Senate delayed work on it until after the election, in part because Democrats who control the Senate wanted to vote on other issues before the election and in part because they didn't want to bog down the bill with politically tinged amendments.
Reid said in October that the defense bill would be taken up after the election but sought to limit debate on the Senate floor to three days, a move that would require sweeping agreements on amendments and severe limits on debate.
"We need to do this, we have always done it, and we are going to do this," Reid said of the bill.
Republicans have other ideas. "We are hopeful that Leader Reid will allow full and open debate" on the bill when the Senate returns, said Donald Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "We've been calling for that for a long time; we called for action on the [bill] in lieu of all the political show votes that Democrats insisted on holding."
Backup plans are in motion in case the Senate is unable to finish the bill. House Armed Services Committee spokesman Claude Chafin said his chairman, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., "is determined that we will pass" a defense authorization bill.
Defense funding has been temporarily taken care of with a six-month appropriations bill that expires March 27.
The biggest piece of unfinished business is an agreement to avoid sequestration, the automatic budget cuts coming in January because Congress and the White House failed to come up with a $1.2 trillion deficit reduction plan. The Pentagon's share of the cuts in 2013 would be about $55 billion.
President Obama said during the Oct. 22 presidential debate that sequestration "will not happen," a view also held by many congressional leaders.
But so far, there is no concrete plan to avoid the cuts.
Small groups of lawmakers have been meeting to try to work out a compromise. The most prominent group, totaling fewer than eight people, is led by Sens. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Mark Warner, D-Va., who want to offer a package of spending cuts and tax changes that avoid sequestration.
If a so-called "grand bargain" cannot be reached, an alternative would be to simply find a way to avoid the 2013 cuts. One idea being discussed would cut the defense budget by $20 billion in 2013, but it is unclear whether House Republicans — who have been trying to protect the Defense Department from any cuts — would go along.