WASHINGTON - The White House is trying to kill a Democratic plan to increase the size of a military pay raise next year, contending it would be too costly and that members of the armed forces are already sufficiently compensated.
In a letter from the White House Office of Management and Budget to congressional committees overseeing the military, OMB director Rob Portman said Wednesday that the administration "strongly opposes" a Democratic plan to bump up military salaries by 3.5 percent instead of Bush's request for a 3 percent jump.
"The cost of increasing the FY 2008 military pay raise by an additional 0.5 percent is $265 million in FY 2008 and $7.3 billion" if similar raises are enacted over the next five years, Portman's office said in a six-page memo outlining concerns about the defense spending bill that was approved by the House early Friday and will be taken up by the Senate this week.
The 3 percent raise proposed by Bush is equal to the increase in the Employment Cost Index estimated by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. New recruits currently make a base salary of $15,617 but are eligible for various bonuses and receive extensive benefits.
Top Democratic leaders vowed to continue their efforts to enact a larger raise, arguing that members of the armed forces and their families deserve annual pay raises higher than the private sector due to the dangers of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The plan to hike military salaries is part of a larger effort by the Democratic Party to demonstrate its support of troops as it moves to place restrictions on funding for the Iraq war.
House leaders are particularly anxious to dispel the notion that Democrats are unsupportive of the military.
Congress often adds money to the annual White House spending request for military programs. Yet the newly elected Congress, which is controlled by Democrats, has placed more emphasis on increasing funding for military personnel than for weapons programs such as missile defense systems, according to MacKenzie Eaglen , a national security specialist at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative-leaning public policy think tank.
"This bill [passed by the House] promotes the softer spending -- such as healthcare, compensation, and readiness -- rather than equipment and weapons," she said.
She said she worries, like the White House, that too much spending on compensation and other personnel costs could unduly drain funding from vital weapons systems.
Democrats, however, think the higher salaries are justified.
In a letter circulated to Senate colleagues yesterday urging their support for the higher pay raise, Senator John F. Kerry , Democrat of Massachusetts, chided the Bush administration for opposing the measure even as it lobbies Congress to extend tax cuts for some of the wealthiest Americans.
In a separate letter to Bush yesterday, Kerry said he was "extremely disappointed" by the White House position on the pay raise, saying it stands "in direct contrast to the will of the American people who support all the efforts to support our troops."
Kerry previously coauthored the Military Family Bill of Rights, which is now law, that increased the death benefit for surviving spouses and family members of troops killed in action to $250,000. The Kerry legislation also extended the amount of time survivors can remain in military housing after their loved one is killed to a full year.
Kerry's new call for greater military pay was echoed by a group of Iraq veterans yesterday.
"The pay raise in the bill is equivalent to approximately $6 a month in troop pay-raise increases," VoteVets.org, a Democrat-leaning military advocacy group said in a statement.
The group's spokesman, John Bruhns , an Iraq veteran, said that "for President Bush to begrudge our troops a pay raise of [one-half] percentage point is outrageous, appalling, and just unacceptable."
He said more financial compensation is especially needed at a time when Army deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have been extended from 12 months to 15 months.
The veterans group also urged the White House to support another provision in the House bill that would provide an additional $40 a month for family members of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The House defense bill authorized $644 billion for the Department of Defense for the year beginning Oct. 1, including $142 billion to pay for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The bill provides our troops with more than the Bush administration requested, including a pay raise more in keeping with what they deserve," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement yesterday.
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