WASHINGTON — Legislation meant to provide paid leave benefits to Minnesota National Guard members and thousands of other soldiers nationwide passed the U.S. House on a voice vote on Tuesday night.
Minnesota Republican John Kline was the lead sponsor of the bill, inspired by the 2,000 members of the Minnesota National Guard serving in the Middle East when the Department of Defense amended its paid leave policy. The new policy would have left some members with up to 27 fewer days of leave.
The effort has bipartisan and bicameral support, and the bill now moves to the Senate, where Sen. Amy Klobuchar has introduced similar legislation. Before the House vote, Kline and several other Minnesota lawmakers spoke on the floor about the measure.
“The legislation is critical to ensuring our sons and daughters in uniform receive the benefits they were promised and rightfully earned,” Kline said.
The Department of Defense changed its paid leave standards last fall after a two-year review of the program, a Pentagon spokeswoman said.
The end result was a program that streamlined the way paid leave time was allocated depending on where and how long service members were on active duty, and in some cases reduced the amount of leave time they are eligible for. The new policy took effect Oct. 1, cutting the leave benefits for about 51,000 service members who had been deployed overseas under the previous policy, Kline said.
The new regulations did not grandfather those soldiers in, and they faced the prospects of losing their benefits when they returned home, like the Minnesota National Guard “Red Bulls” did a few weeks ago.
Kline said he has no problem with the rule change on its face, but the loophole that left the Red Bulls and their colleagues without their paid leave was too much.
“I think it’s perfectly within the Pentagon’s correct role to look at policies like this and say this is what the policy ought to be going forward,” he said. “My problem is that they put a program in and then changed the rules for people that were already deployed.”
Kline grilled Defense Secretary Leon Panetta about the new guidelines when he appeared before the House Armed Services committee in February. He introduced a bill to extend the paid leave benefits a short time later, and Klobuchar did the same in the U.S. Senate.
The pair kept talking to Panetta, Kline and the Pentagon said, until there was an understanding that deployed service members should receive those leave benefits and that Congress would need to pass a bill saying so.
“After Sen. Klobuchar and Rep. Kline brought this to his attention, he determined it was important that we take a second look to address the concern,” Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said in an email.
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry