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What Makes the Cost of War? « The Washington Independent

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/webb1.jpgSen. James Webb (D-Va.) (WDCpix)

As Congress seeks to push through a popular proposal to expand education funding for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, House Democrats are in disagreement over the answer to a basic question: Is the tuition benefit a cost of war?

Supporters of the new GI Bill, including veterans groups and Democratic leaders, consider an education to be as much an obligation to the troops as providing them bullets and boots. They say it is another cost of conflict to be funded under the same emergency spending bill that provides the boats and bombs. Standing in their way, however, are the Blue Dogs, a group of fiscally conservative House Democrats who support the policy but want it paid for with a tax hike or cuts elsewhere in the budget.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

The conflict highlights the difficulty facing House leaders as they attempt to straddle the demands of the Senate — where 60 votes are needed to move anything — and the growing number of Democratic fiscal hawks in their own chamber. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Cal.), a liberal representing San Francisco, says she welcomes the diversity within the party, but that diversity could prove an increasing challenge. The Blue Dogs numbered 23 at their founding in 1995, but membership has grown to 49. And with increasing membership has come increasing clout.

“It certainly makes them more of a force to be reckoned with, if they stick together,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog group that supports the Blue Dogs in their stand against an unfunded GI Bill. “Of course, the more members they have, the tougher it will be to stick together.”

In the case of the war funding bill, the Blue Dogs have thus far stuck together. As a group, they’ve been willing to borrow from abroad to pay the direct costs of supporting the conflict, but have drawn their line at the GI Bill.

“It is not an emergency cost,” said John Spragens, spokesman for Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), a prominent Blue Dog. “Our obligation is to care for the troops — but not with China’s money, and not at the expense of our grandkids.”

In the eyes of veterans groups, that argument is puzzling. Vanessa Williamson, policy director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an advocacy group, said it makes little sense to support borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars to fund the wars, but oppose borrowing a fraction of that to reward the troops with an education when they return.

“A balanced budget is something everyone would want to see happen,” she said. “But I just don’t see why anyone would want to put their flag in the sand over this.”

Eric Hilleman, deputy director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, agreed. “The Blue Dogs are in a very difficult spot,” he said, “but this might not be the hill that they want to fight on.”

The Blue Dogs stem from a decades-long tradition of Southern, conservative Democrats, whose numbers have fluctuated with the changing tides of culture and political sentiment. With the civil-rights movement, many of those Southern Democratic seats have become Republican. The current conflict over the GI Bill, however, is one over process, not policy — a milder Democratic division than that of the past.

“In the 40s and 50s, Southerners were not for civil rights, period,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University. “There were real policy differences. This is a different type of tension.”

The showdown is identical to another of last month, when Democratic leaders appeased their conservative-leaning colleagues by offsetting the 10-year, $52-billion cost of the GI Bill with a half-percent tax hike on folks earning more than $500,000 per year. The maneuver got the bill through the House, but the tax hike had no chance of surviving the Senate. Indeed, the upper chamber stripped the offset provision, and returned the proposal to the House, unfunded. Now, unsurprisingly, the Blue Dogs are balking again.

They are not alone. Budget watchdogs are also throwing their weight behind the push to offset the GI Bill or remove it from the war spending bill. “I understand it’s a great bill, but we should be doing it on-budget,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “This is the problem with emergency supplementals. They end up becoming Christmas trees.”

Under the bipartisan bill, sponsored by Sens. James Webb (D-Va.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), both Vietnam vets, post-9/11 veterans serving active duty for at least three years would be eligible for full tuition at the most expensive public college in their state of residence. Additional funding would be provided for room, board, books and other supplies. Veterans serving less than three years — but at least three months — could receive lesser benefits. Supporters say the bill offers education benefits comparable to those in the original GI Bill — which gave millions of returning World War II veterans the opportunity for higher education.

But no soldier today will see expanded benefits without the support of the Blue Dogs, leaving House leaders in a pickle. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Wednesday that the tax hike option was off the table. That implies that he and Pelosi hope to convince the Blue Dogs to accept a bill without offsets. Hoyer said the sides would reach a resolution by next week, when House leaders expect to bring the bill to the floor.

“I would hope and expect that we’re going to have a majority,” Hoyer said, “which obviously means I think we will have a lot of Blue Dogs. Will we have every Blue Dog? I don’t know that.”

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