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McCain’s GI Bill Mantra: Fewer Benefits = Higher Retention

For weeks, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has ducked questions about his reluctance to endorse a congressional proposal to update the GI Bill for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Now we know why.

On Tuesday, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee dropped his own veterans’ education bill, which would offer active-duty vets up to $1,500 per month toward their schooling (up from $1,101 under the current Montgomery GI Bill), and an additional $500 annually for books. It would also hike the benefit for members of the National Guard and Reserves to $1,200 per month, up from $880. (A more thorough summary is provided by South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, a co-sponsor.)

McCain, himself a veteran of the Vietnam War, said in a statement:

Men and women who serve their country in uniform deserve the best education benefits we are able to give them.

Funny, then, that the benefits in McCain’s bill fall well short of those provided by the proposal he refused to endorse. That bill, sponsored by Sens. James Webb (D-Va.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), offers Iraq and Afghanistan vets full tuition, room, board and supplies at any state school, despite the cost. It also makes no distinction between active-duty troops and members of the Guard and Reserves — a provision added in recognition of the unprecedented reliance of today’s volunteer military on those service-members.

In fact, one of the central criticisms of the Webb-Hagel bill — from both the White House and many congressional Republicans — is that it’s too generous, and therefore will encourage service-members to abandon the military in favor of college. Offer a lesser benefit package, the theory goes, and the troops are more likely to stay in their boots. (Supporters of the Webb-Hagel bill, including a number of veterans advocacy groups, say the better benefits will encourage recruitment, therefore nullifying any retention problems that might occur on the other end.)

On Tuesday, Webb and Hagel, along with Senate co-sponsors Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and John Warner (R-Va.), issued a statement blasting McCain’s approach:

The proponents of this newly-introduced legislation maintain that [our bill] is too generous to today’s veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, is too difficult to administer, and would unduly harm the retention of our active duty military people. Each of these assertions is wrong.

This saga could end soon. The Webb-Hagel bill is up to 57 Senate co-sponsors — including 11 Republicans and McCain cheerleader Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) — and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has vowed to bring the proposal to the floor before the end of May. That scheduling is probably purposeful: Even the staunchest opponents might find it difficult to reject a vets’ benefits package right before Memorial Day.

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