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Veterans Disability Raise Stalls in Senate after Being Blocked by GOP ‘Secret Hold’

A bill to increase veterans’ disability compensation was stalled in the Senate as Senators left to campaign for re-election.

The bill, the Veterans’ Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2012, would provide a 1.3 percent cost of living adjustment to veterans receiving disability compensation. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the bill, if enacted, would increase spending for those programs by $686 million in fiscal year 2013. The annualized cost would be about $915 million in subsequent years.

It passed the House easily last summer. Since then, it has gone to the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, Chaired by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA).

The bill cleared the committee, and the Senate was getting ready to vote on it, when it was blocked by an anonymous Republican, who kept up the hold long enough to prevent a vote before the fall recess. The Senate returns to work on November 13th of this year – after the election.

Secret Hold Background

Senate rules allow for a member to place a “secret hold” on a piece of legislation.

The member who placed the hold remains anonymous, though traditionally secret holds are only placed with the approval of party leadership. The hold can be broken with a cloture vote of 60 Senators.

In this case, whomever the anonymous Senator who placed the hold retreated from the position, but not before it was too late to vote on the bill prior to the election. The mystery Republican also released the hold just before Senate rules required the Senate Republican leadership to own the hold themselves.

The bill, if signed into law, would match the rate of increase to the Social Security cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA. The slated increases would begin on January 1, 2013.

The Senate will have to vote on the bill right away if the Veterans Administration will be able to process the January checks on time with the COLA. Otherwise, assuming the bill passes the Senate and the President signs it into law, the pay increase will have to be paid retroactively.

The benefits affected include disability compensation and dependency and indemnity compensation for surviving spouses and children.

Why Do They Allow Secret Holds, Anyway?

Traditionally, Senators were allowed to anonymously place a hold on a piece of legislation in order to ensure that they were consulted on matters of great importance to their state. Holds were rare until the 1970s, when a general deterioration in interparty relations led to an increase in their use.

Senators wishing to place a secret hold must get their party leadership’s approval. After two days, the party leadership is named the sponsor of the hold. However, Senators occasionally get around this by “tag-teaming.” That is, a number of Senators will block the bill, one after another, for just short of two days each. Only a cloture vote of 60 Senators can break the hold.

No one seems to know why the hold was placed, though, and no one is saying who the initiating Senator was. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) blocked a veterans’ jobs bill earlier this year. But his office is saying he had nothing to do with it.

One possible suspect: Tom Coburn (R-OK), who also put a secret hold on another Veterans bill, the Veterans’ Caregiver and Omnibus Health Benefits Act of 2009. He’s a member of the Frequent Holder Club, having also placed holds on the Veterans Health Care Authorization Act of 2009 and the Veterans’ Insurance and Benefits Enhancement Act of 2009, according to reporting by Rick Maze of Military Times. Senate staffers eventually leaked out who was responsible for the block.

A call to Senator Coburn’s office seeking comment was not immediately returned.

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