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Blue Dogs Resist Unfunded GI Bill

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/webb2.jpgSen. James Webb (D-Va) (WDCpix)

In an earlier era, Navy Reservist Elizabeth Lahny’s combat service abroad might have merited comprehensive education benefits when she returned home. Instead, the Boise State University junior is struggling with college loans and a part-time job that pays minimum wage. The current GI Bill, she says, is enough to cover only the rent.

Despite her service in Iraq, the 27-year-old Idahoan faces a sea of debt.

“I carried an M-16 for six months,” Lahny said at a Capitol Hill rally for better benefits last month. “Now I’m probably going to carry student loan debt for the rest of my life.”

House Democrats this week hope to pass legislation that would change that, expanding the existing GI Bill to cover more college costs for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Senate, as well, hopes to tackle the proposal before the month’s end.

Congress_3412.jpg
Congress_3412.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

The push has gained prominence five years into an Iraq conflict for which relatively few Americans outside the armed service community have been asked to sacrifice anything at all. Supporters of the expanded education benefit, sponsored by Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), point out how an entire generation of World War II veterans benefited from the first GI Bill of 1944 — and how the nation as a whole benefited, in turn, from the millions-strong wave of newly educated citizens.

To offer the same opportunity for the vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, supporters of the Webb bill argue, is the least the country can do to reward their sacrifices.

But Democratic leaders face tough opposition from both sides of the aisle. Conservative Republicans oppose the policy, arguing that the benefits are too generous; while conservative-leaning House Democrats — the Blue Dogs — oppose the process, maintaining that the 10-year, $52-billion cost should be offset rather than borrowed, as party leaders have proposed.

House Democrats hope to score a political victory by voting separately to attach the education proposal to a must-pass emergency war spending bill — all but daring Republicans to vote against a veterans benefit just before Memorial Day in an election year. The bill would then move to the Senate, where the same scenario could force some Republican senators — including likely GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) — into a similarly uncomfortable vote. To get the bill out of the House, however, will likely require cooperation from the 47-member-strong Blue Dogs, whose opposition to the off-budget GI Bill came as a surprise. The shakeup pushed House debate on the war spending package to later this week.

Among House Democrats, the conflict boils down to this: Do lawmakers have a greater responsibility to the returning troops or to future generations via smaller budget deficits? The saga underscores the difficulty of moving legislation in a high-stakes election year — when lawmakers want to be seen working hard in Washington, but political wrangling ensures the failure of most big ideas.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Cal.) has said that the Democratic differences would be ironed out this week. But Blue Dog Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) said Tuesday that he has no intention of backing down. “The Blue Dogs still have plenty of fight,” Cooper said.

Budget watchdog groups are cheering Cooper and the other opposition Democrats, arguing that the country can’t afford a new mandatory, but unfunded, spending program — regardless of how well-intentioned it is. Though the Webb bill proposes a 15-year sunset for individual benefits, these budget groups point out that there is currently no end in sight to the U.S. military presence in Iraq or Afghanistan. “It is by far the longest-running benefit in the bill,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog.

Robert Bixby, executive director of The Concord Coalition, which also pushes for fiscal responsibility in government, delivered a letter to Blue Dog leaders Monday applauding their resolve.

“[Y]our insistence that expanded benefits be paid for demonstrates a willingness to honor our veterans’ sacrifice with some sacrifice of our own,” Bixby wrote. “Surely, proponents of this benefit do not mean to suggest that it is only worth doing if it doesn’t have to be paid for.”

As a budget gimmick, Congress under leadership of both parties has relied on emergency supplemental bills to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That strategy has allowed lawmakers to secure war funding without offsetting the costs through unpopular tax hikes or cuts to other programs. Because those bills aren’t paid for, they’ve also been popular vehicles for other proposals. Democratic leaders announced earlier in the month that the GI Bill expansion would be one such rider to the latest emergency spending proposal.

That bill also includes roughly $162.5 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, none of which is offset. The Blue Dogs have historically voted for such off-budget funding when it goes directly to the war effort — and appear poised to do the same this time around.

Charles Stenholm, a former Texas Democrat and prominent Blue Dog, said there is a distinction to be made between funding the troops in the field and granting them education benefits when they return. “The problem with the war is that it is a fact,” said Stenholm, now a lobbyist with the Washington-based firm Olsson Frank Weeda. “It is going on … You don’t have any choice on that one. On the GI Bill, you do have a choice.”

But veterans groups and many Democrats — including Pelosi — contend the expanded education benefit is just another cost of the wars. If the Blue Dogs are willing to drop pay-as-you-go budget rules to continue those conflicts, they argue, then they should be willing to do the same to reward the service of soldiers when they return.

In a scathing statement issued last week, liberal New York Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D) accused his fellow party members of applying “inconsistent logic” in regards to funding the GI Bill.

“How can the Blue Dog Coalition possibly say that an expansion of education benefits is too costly,” Hinchey said, “when their votes to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to fight in Iraq violate the same pay-as-you-go rules they claim to so deeply respect?”

Under the Webb bill, post-9/11 veterans could begin receiving education benefits after serving three months in Iraq or Afghanistan. The full benefit would kick in after three years of service, at which time veterans would be eligible for full tuition at any state school. Additional stipends would cover room, board, books and other supplies.

“This is not a difficult concept,” Webb said at last month’s Capitol rally. “For all the people who have been saying that this is the new ‘Greatest Generation,’ this is the easiest way for all of us to prove that.”

The White House opposes the proposal, however, arguing that its generosity will lure soldiers out of their uniforms and into the classroom — an exodus that would be a bane to an all-volunteer military already stressed by two active conflicts. A report from the Congressional Budget Office last week bolstered the administration’s case, concluding that the Webb bill would increase recruitment by 16 percent, but simultaneously cut re-enlistment by another 16 percent. The cumulative effect would be a net loss in service members requiring roughly $1 billion over five years to patch, CBO estimates.

The Bush administration favors an alternative plan — sponsored by McCain — that caps the benefits and phases them in over a longer time-span. This, McCain says, would encourage troop retention.

The cost of the McCain bill, however, also runs into the billions of dollars. If the Blue Dogs have their way, no strategy will move without offsets.

Kirstin Brost, spokeswoman for House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), said Tuesday that House leaders are in discussions with the Blue Dogs over how to pay for the Webb proposal. But $52 billion is a hefty tab to offset, even by Washington standards, and revenue sources are few. Program cuts in an election year are unlikely, and President George W. Bush has said he will veto any tax hikes. The storm of factors could push the issue to next year, when Democrats are expected to have broader congressional majorities, and a new administration will control the White House.

For returned veterans like Elizabeth Lahny, the new benefit might arrive too late to be of much help. But as the Idaho reservist told Boise’s ABC affiliate recently: “I don’t know they’ll be able to get the funding in time to help me. But I want it for other veterans.”

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