WASHINGTON (AP) - The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee is recommending that a special committee searching for ways to slash the deficit consider some of President Barack Obama's proposed changes to health and retirement benefits for the military.
In a letter to the bipartisan panel, Arizona Sen. John McCain signaled he was open to cost-saving steps in military benefits, a move certain to send shock waves through Congress and among powerful groups of retired officers and veterans resistant to change.
The Associated Press obtained a copy of the letter.
The Pentagon's health care costs have skyrocketed from $19 billion in 2001 to $53 billion, but lawmakers and various groups argue that members of the military and their families sacrifice far more than the average American, with a career that includes long and dangerous deployments overseas that overshadow civilian work. Health and retirement benefits help attract service members to the all-volunteer force.
McCain said he would support establishing an annual enrollment fee for TRICARE for Life, the health care program that has no fee for participation. Obama had proposed an initial annual fee of $200.
"This proposal would be the first such change since Congress established this program in 2001, a period during which national health care costs have risen significantly," the senator wrote.
McCain also urged the so-called supercommittee to consider restricting working-age military retirees and their dependents from enrolling in TRICARE Prime, which has the lowest out-of-pocket expenses. The retirees could still enroll in other TRICARE programs. McCain pointed out that the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that such a move would save $111 billion over 10 years.
Active-duty personnel still would be enrolled in the program automatically.
McCain, who was Obama's rival for the presidency in 2008, also said he supported Obama's proposal for a commission to review military retirement benefits that should consider changes to the military compensation system. He said he agreed with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who said those currently serving in the military should be "grandfathered" in, so expected benefits aren't reduced.
Veterans groups challenged Obama's proposals last month and are certain to mobilize to fight any effort by the supercommittee to adopt McCain's recommendations.
"Our nation's financial situation cannot be solved by breaking faith with those who singlehandedly fight our nation's wars - be it today or tomorrow," Richard L. DeNoyer, the head of the 2 million-member Veterans of Foreign Wars, said in a statement last month.
McCain also told the supercommittee he rejects any deeper cuts in overall defense spending beyond the 10-year, $450 billion cuts already set by the administration and Congress.
"I fully support the president's decision not to propose any additional reductions in defense spending limits beyond those he has already called for," he said.