WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of lawmakers that includes Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski is fighting an effort to privatize the commissaries that serve military families at installations such as Fort Meade and Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Tucked into a major defense bill moving through the Senate this week is a pilot program that would test the privatization of commissaries at five military bases.
The 246 stores run by the Defense Commissary Agency on and around military bases worldwide offer deep discounts on groceries and other items to service members, veterans and their families. A survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2010 found that shopping at commissaries saves the average military family of four $4,500 per year.
The lawmakers, led by Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, and Sen. Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, say using contractors for the service, while cheaper for the government, would squeeze the benefit that service members receive.
The lawmakers hope to offer an amendment to the defense bill that would delay the pilot program by requiring the Defense Department first to generate a report next year.
Separately, Mikulski is attempting to reverse funding cuts for commissaries that were proposed by the Obama administration this year.
"Military families are mobilizing on this," Mikulski, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Thursday.
She framed the issue as a struggle between "Pentagon bean splicers" and "military widows."
"Commissaries represent one of the most significant ... benefits for military members and their families," she said. "We have to make sure that our commissaries function at the level that they currently are."
The nearly 150-year-old commissary program registers $5.6 billion in sales annually. Customers purchase groceries at 5 percent over cost, which amounts to a 30 percent discount from commercial prices.
But that benefit costs federal taxpayers about $1.4 billion a year. As the Pentagon faces increased pressure to trim costs, some say it is time for the commissaries to take a reduction.
President Barack Obama called this year for a $322 million cut to the commissary program.
Supporters warned that such a reduction could lead the stores to reduce hours, lay off employees or close.
The Republican-led House did not include the cut in its spending bill. The Senate Appropriations Committee voted Thursday to approve a Mikulski amendment that would maintain the current funding level of $1.4 billion.
The Defense Commissary Agency operates seven commissaries in Maryland, located at Fort Meade, Aberdeen Proving Ground, the Forest Glen Annex in Silver Spring, the Naval Academy, Joint Base Andrews in Prince George's County, Fort Detrick in Frederick and Naval Air Station Patuxent River in St. Mary's County.
Surveys indicate that more than 90 percent of U.S. service members shop at commissaries, according to Inhofe.
"Our commissaries are the most utilized service by our nation's military members and their families," said Inhofe, an Army veteran and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Once a commissary is privatized, it will be nearly impossible for such an action to be reversed."
The genesis of the latest privatization effort is murky. A spokesman at the Defense Commissary Agency declined to comment on pending legislation.
A spokesman for Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the Armed Services Committee, did not respond to a request for comment.
The House of Representatives did not include the privatization pilot program in the defense bill it approved last month.
Opposition to the privatization is bipartisan and broad. The White House said this month that it had "concerns with commissary privatization and the willingness of private-sector entities to participate in such a project."
An independent commission formed by Congress to study military compensation and retirement recommended this year the consolidation of commissaries and exchanges, which are similar to commercial department or discount stores.
But the idea has not gained traction in Washington, where lawmakers are reluctant to reduce the benefits of service members and veterans, and where the discounts offered by commissaries and exchanges are seen as a way of helping military families make ends meet.
The Senate is working its way through the annual defense authorization bill, considered must-pass legislation that sets broad funding levels for the military and policy directives for the Pentagon.
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The legislation has become a flash point in a broader budget fight, with the GOP-controlled Congress hoping to skirt the sequester caps imposed on the military in 2011.
Earlier this month, the White House threatened to veto the Senate bill.
While the commissary issue is a small piece of the defense authorization bill, it is being watched closely by more than a dozen veterans and military groups that oppose the privatization effort.
"Our position has always been that the value of this benefit is in the savings that families achieve by shopping there," said Eileen Huck of the National Military Family Association. "We're very concerned about any proposal that would erode the value of the benefit."