A measure that would provide desperately needed monthly compensation to severely disabled war veterans has surpassed a rare threshold of support in the House — an eleventh-hour triumph that could trigger a floor vote this year.
A month after the Major Richard Star Act failed to advance out of a congressional committee, angering retired service members struggling to survive amid rising inflation, the bill has secured the 290 co-sponsors, or two-thirds of the House, it needed to forge a new route to the floor.
That is a "testament" to the broad bipartisan support the bill enjoys, said Jose Ramos, vice president for government and community relations at the Wounded Warrior Project. And it is a rare feat for any measure, especially one that affects the Defense Department.
Less than 1% of all House-originated bills and resolutions have reached that co-sponsor mark in each Congress since 2013, Congressional Research Service analyst Jane Hudiburg said.
As of Wednesday, at least 181 Democrats and 109 Republicans in the House supported the Major Richard Star Act, which would help about 50,000 medically retired and severely disabled combat veterans.
The measure has nearly three times as many House co-sponsors as the PACT Act, a widely popular veterans bill signed into law Wednesday with 97 Democratic and three GOP co-sponsors. The bill ultimately passed the House, 342-88.
The Major Richard Star Act would make those with under 20 years of active service eligible for both disability and retirement benefits. Under current law, only disabled veterans who have served 20 years receive both benefits.
Those with fewer years of service receive disability payments, but not retirement — an injustice that robs retired service members of hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars a month that are not only sorely needed but earned, veterans groups say.
“Military retirement pay and service-connected disability compensation are two completely different benefits. One does not diminish the merits of the other,” said Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., who introduced the bill.
“The brave men and women who return from serving our country should be able to receive the benefits promised to them,” he added.
Retirement pay from the Defense Department and disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs are “fundamentally different” and “earned for different reasons,” the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a nonprofit veterans group, said.
Yet no combat-disabled retiree could receive both at the same time until 2004, when Congress said those with at least 20 years of active service and a disability rating of at least 50% could.
That left out tens of thousands of people, including Purple Heart recipients, whose military careers were cut short due to combat-related injuries, veterans advocates said.
“This injustice directly contributes to the thousands of disabled combat veterans that fall into homelessness, mental health crises and suicide,” said Michael Raska, 27, who sustained severe head trauma on a deployment with the USS Carl Vinson in 2014.
The bill was named after an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran who died last year from cancer caused by toxic exposure from combat, according to the nonprofit Military Officers Association of America.
It was among 1,200 amendments that House members sought to have included in the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, this year. But the House Rules Committee did not advance it in July — a blow to veterans who were forced to retire on disability, including many who are burning through their savings.
The Major Richard Star Act is expected to cost about $8 billion over 11 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Although there are some ways around it, House rules prevent amendments that could increase the federal deficit from being considered unless they include a way to offset the costs by increasing revenue or reducing spending in other areas.
At the time, a spokesperson for Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., who chairs the House Rules Committee, said the committee could not advance the Maj. Richard Star amendment because it did not include that budget offset.
Since then, nearly two dozen members of Congress have signed on as co-sponsors, forging a new avenue for the bill to succeed as a standalone measure under the Consensus Calendar rule.
"That is swift, major progress," Raska said, calling it a "very rare milestone for a proposed bill in Congress."
But lawmakers may now face a race against the clock. Under the rule, which was established in 2019, a House-originated measure that shows broad bipartisan support with at least 290 co-sponsors can be considered for a vote.
But it must first maintain that number of co-sponsors for 25 total legislative days before a Sept. 30 deadline — a task made difficult while Congress is in recess for most of August.
To meet that requirement, the House could go into session on more days than are currently scheduled, Hudiburg said, or it could agree to a special rule that temporarily changes that requisite.
More than three-fifths of the U.S. Senate have already signed on as co-sponsors of the Major Richard Star Act.
Champions of the bill are optimistic that the overwhelming amount of support among legislators in both chambers will make the process less daunting and pave an easier path to the president's desk.
The progress has boosted morale among desperate veterans.
"It seems like there is hope now," Raska said.