Senators toss key amendments

By Tom Philpott: CNJ columnist

To protect its prerogative of adding billions of dollars of pork-barrel projects to defense bills, the Senate last week passed its fiscal 2009 defense authorization bill without allowing votes on 101 pending amendments, some of them important to service personnel.

About a third of the ignored amendments would have improved military quality of life or the management of service personnel programs.

But one amendment, introduced by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., would have given the Department of Defense authority to ignore up to $5 billion of “earmarks” found not in the bill but buried in the bill’s thick report.

Senators decided to abandoned all remaining amendments rather than face an embarrassing election-year rhubarb over pork-barrel spending.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the armed service committee and floor manager of the bill, said DeMint’s amendment would have been “an abdication of the power of the purse” in shaping defense policy bills.

Key personnel initiatives left for next Congress to take up included:

EARLY RESERVE RETIREMENT — This amendment from Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., would have made more than 140,000 reservists who have been mobilized since Sept. 11, 2001, eligible for earlier reserve retirement.

Last year, Congress adopted a pared down Chambliss amendment on reserve retirement. It lowered the age 60 start for retired pay of Reserve and National Guard members who mobilize for war or national emergencies. For every 90 consecutive days mobilized, a reservist would see retired pay begin three months earlier, if they otherwise qualify for retirement. So a reservist who was mobilized 24 months to Iraq or Afghanistan could begin to draw retired pay at age 58.

But for lack of funds last year, Congress made this change applicable only for deployment time after Jan. 28, 2008.