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Senators eye pay boost for junior troops, more funds for housing fixes

A key Senate leader is pushing to pass targeted pay raises for junior enlisted troops this year but warned that budget caps on military appropriations for next fiscal year may complicate the plans.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., said he also hopes to find ways to fund wide-ranging barracks improvement projects and other quality of life changes in coming months.

“I hope we can do it, because it provides real incentives and it will help respond to the issue of retention and recruitment that we have seen,” Reed said. “It reflects the respect and regard we have for our forces. We can praise them, as we do, but it helps to pay them well too.”

2025 budget: 4.5% pay raise, shift of troops from active to reserve

The comments from Reed during a meeting with reporters on Monday echo goals already outlined by House leadership to find ways to improve quality of life for younger service members and their families. But whether the two chambers can adopt such a plan will depend on spending debates in coming months.

Last week, the White House unveiled plans for a 4.5% pay raise for all troops next January as part of its fiscal 2025 Defense Department budget request. That target would be slightly below the 5.2% raise service members saw this past January but would still mark the third consecutive year of raises above 4% for military personnel.

But lawmakers for the last year have debated whether those across-the-board pay raises are enough, particularly for junior enlisted troops who earn less than $30,000 a year in base pay.

House lawmakers last year adopted plans to award junior enlisted troops a significant, targeted pay boost, guaranteeing that even the lowest-ranking service members make at least $31,000 in take home pay. But the proposal did not survive negotiations with the Senate.

Members of the House Armed Services Committee’s special panel on quality of life issues have promised to revive the idea this year, and are expected to unveil a host of proposals aimed at improving military families’ health and finances in coming weeks.

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., chairs that panel and said the changes need to happen as soon as possible. But he has also warned that they could be expensive and take several years to fully implement.

Reed’s committee did include in the fiscal 2024 defense authorization bill language requiring a review of military pay rates, along with legislative proposals from the Defense Department for comprehensive military pay table changes.

Defense officials have said they expect that report to be due in early 2025. But lawmakers may not wait that long.

“We’re already looking at not only at improving incentive pay, but also the idea of whether all of our pay increases have to be across every rank, or is there a better model,” Reed said. “We’re going to be seriously engaged with the department in terms of how we compensate our forces and how we make sure their quality of life is attractive.”

But defense spending will rise next year only by about 1% from fiscal 2024 levels under budget caps approved by Congress last summer, limiting how much funding may be available for sweeping quality of life reforms.

“We’ll have to make tough decisions,” Reed said.

House appropriators are scheduled to hear from senior enlisted leaders on Wednesday to discuss their quality of life improvement ideas ahead of congressional budget decisions later this spring.

Meanwhile, lawmakers still need to finalize plans for the fiscal 2024 defense budget by the end of the week or risk a partial shutdown of military operations and services. The department has been working on short-term budget extensions since Oct. 1, when the new fiscal year began.

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