House Democrats are pushing to end the military widow’s tax, repeal rules blocking troops’ medical malpractice lawsuits against the military, and increase the number of special visas for Afghan War allies as part of military spending bill expected to advance this week.

Leadership added the provisions Tuesday on the eve of floor debate on the must-pass annual defense authorization bill. The moves drew criticism from House Republicans as expensive changes without any plans for spending offsets, potentially jeopardizing chances of passing the budget measure out of Congress.

But House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., said the provisions each enjoy broad support within the chamber and details of the spending specifics can be worked out during bill negotiations with the Senate in months to come.

“(Republicans) cut taxes by $2 trillion without offsetting it,” he said. “You can make the policy choice that this is so important, we’re going to spend the money. And that we will debate in conference.”

All three proposals face a difficult path in the Senate, where Republican leaders have already advanced legislation specifically excluding a repeal of the widow’s tax and have not had any significant conversation about changing the Defense Department’s malpractice protections.

But advancing those policies in the House would represent significant legislative momentum for advocates who have been lobbying for changes for decades, and at the least allow for continued debate on the topics for the next few months.

Malpractice lawsuits

The malpractice lawsuit issue stems from the Feres Doctrine, a 1950 Supreme Court decision that blocked troops from claiming medical damages for actions related to their military service. At the time, the court found that military personnel injured by the negligence of another federal employee cannot sue under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

In April, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., introduced legislation to upend that, allowing for limited exemptions to permit lawsuits against the Defense Department by troops and their families in cases of extreme medical neglect or abuse.

Defense Department officials have argued that undoing the precedent would upset the current military compensation and benefits system. They have also predicted an explosion of frivolous cases against the military.

But outside advocates insist the current system deprives troops of justice after malpractice, and discourages improvements in the military health system.

Speier’s provisions would not include injuries sustained in a combat zone and would and would only apply to mistakes that occur at major military hospitals and clinics. Medical treatments on ships or battalion aid stations would be excluded.

Widow’s tax

The widow’s tax centers around how the government treats two separate military survivor payouts. The first, the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation program, awards around $15,000 a year to survivors of veterans or troops who die of service-related causes. There is no cost to troops or families to enroll.

The other, the Survivor Benefit Plan, gives families of military retirees who enroll up to 55 percent of their loved ones' retirement pay after the veteran dies. The life insurance-type payouts are subsidized by DoD, but require enrollees to pay-in part of their retirement benefit to be eligible.

Individuals who qualify for either SBP money or DIC benefits receive full payouts from the respective programs. But family members who qualify for both are subject to an offset, where for every dollar paid out in DIC their payouts under SBP are reduced by one dollar.

That costs those families up to $1,000 a month in payouts advocates insist they deserve. Lawmakers have provided special payouts to counter some of that lost money, but advocates have pushed for a full fix.

Cost has been the major obstacle to that. Congressional staff estimates the price tag for eliminating the widow’s tax would total $5.7 billion over 10 years. Republicans who opposed adding the measure to the fiscal 2020 defense authorization bill said without finding an offset for that cost, the fix could take away money from other readiness and modernization priorities.

Other issues

The amendment attached to the defense bill also specifies a 3.1 percent pay raise for troops in 2020 and 12 weeks of paid family leave to federal employees. The former is uncontroversial (the underlying bill already contained provisions for the pay raise) while the latter is likely to cause some opposition from fiscal conservatives.

A provision to expand the number of Afghan Special Immigrant Visas for individuals who aided U.S. military personnel in that country also has broad support in theory but has been bogged down in cost concerns. It is estimated to cost around $9 million annually.

Altogether, House Republicans put the price tag of the last-minute additions at almost $6.2 billion over the next decade. The current House authorization bill includes plans for $733 billion in spending next fiscal year, about $17 billion less than the White House (and Senate Republicans) targeted funding level.

House lawmakers are expected to pass the authorization bill later this week. Staff from both chambers will take the rest of the summer and likely part of the fall to negotiate a compromise package for both chambers.

Reporter Joe Gould contributed to this story.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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