WASHINGTON - The U.S. Senate cleared long-sought legislation Thursday providing the Minnesota National Guard and more than 49,000 troops nationwide paid time-off benefits they were promised before they were shipped overseas last year.
The measure will help more than 2,000 Minnesota soldiers recoup promised benefits to spend time with their families and seek work at the end of their deployments, which for many ended last month.
Thursday's unanimous vote was rare show of bipartisan unity in the Senate, following a unanimous voice vote Tuesday night in the House. President Obama is expected to sign the measure within the next week.
The Senate bill, carried by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., exempts troops who were deployed before the Pentagon issued new restrictions last October that limited paid time off. Some troops, including members of the famed Minnesota "Red Bulls," faced the loss of as much as a month of paid time.
Klobuchar praised senators from both parties, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for coming together to help the troops. "If we hadn't done it together, we never would have gotten it done now," she said.
Final passage followed a months-long campaign led by U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., a retired Marine colonel who took up the Guard's cause. "Promises made should be promises kept, and it is unconscionable for the Pentagon to have changed the rules while Minnesota's famed Red Bulls were defending freedom overseas," Kline said. "I am pleased the entire Minnesota congressional delegation put partisan politics aside and worked together to ensure our sons and daughters in uniform received the benefits they were promised."
In a rare move, Kline went over to the Senate floor Wednesday to discuss bill with Klobuchar, McCain and other senators.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta supported the exemption, although Pentagon officials requested congressional action to protect the affected troops.
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.