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Is This the GI Bill’s Year?

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/webb4.jpgSen. James Webb (D-Va.) (WDCpix)

With Gen. David H. Petraeus making the rounds in Congress this week, much of Washington’s focus has been on the future of American troops fighting abroad. But outside the Petraeus spotlight, a movement has emerged to enhance the education benefits for those soldiers when they return home. Despite White House opposition, the proposal has a good shot of moving this year.

An updated GI Bill, sponsored by Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), would offer Iraq and Afghanistan veterans up to four academic years of full, state college benefits — covering room, board and other expenses. Webb says it maintains “the spirit of the original World War II GI Bill,” which offered far more comprehensive benefits than the GI Bill of today. Many of Webb’s colleagues agree. The proposal is supported by 52 additional senators, including 10 Republicans.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

More important, it has the strong backing of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who said this week that he hopes to attach the Webb proposal to one of two military spending bills that the upper chamber plans to tackle before Memorial Day.

“It would so help the men and women who have gone through Iraq and Afghanistan and need help,” Reid told reporters at the Capitol Tuesday. “It would be very good for our military, which is in a state of distress now. We need to do things to buoy up the military.”

The expansion proposal, however, is not without opponents. The Bush administration and some congressional Republicans have quietly resisted the Webb bill. They cite its cost — an estimated $2.5 billion in the first year — as well as concerns that an improved education benefit would entice troops to leave service earlier, exacerbating the already substantial retention problems surrounding today’s all-volunteer military.

Eric Hilleman, a legislative affairs specialist with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said VFW has been in contact with almost every congressional office on Capitol Hill urging support for the Webb bill. Among the lawmakers withholding endorsements, he said, “the No. 1 concern has been the cost.”

That argument digs under the skin of veterans’ advocates, who question Congress’s spending priorities. “When I hear someone say it costs too much,” said Bernard Edelman, deputy director for policy and government affairs at the Vietnam Veterans of America, “my response is real simple: Look at how much we’re spending in Iraq this month.”

The looming elections are playing a role in the debate, for few lawmakers want to be portrayed as unsupportive of troops newly returned from the streets of Basra or Kabul. That could help Reid’s push to move the bill this year. Indeed, several Republicans in tight races have already signed on.

Reid said Tuesday that he wants to attach the Webb proposal to a bill authorizing next year’s Defense Dept. spending. More likely, however, the vehicle will be an emergency appropriations measure to fund the war in Iraq. Both are viewed as must-pass legislation, but for Democrats seeking the path of least resistance, the latter option offers a significant advantage: emergency spending bills are immune to pay-as-you-go budget rules. Placing Webb’s proposal as a rider to the Iraq supplemental bill would allow Democrats to expand the GI Bill without offsetting the new spending.

For now, GOP leaders are treading lightly around the issue. A spokeswoman for Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the minority leader is still digesting the Webb proposal — curious considering the bulk of the bill is more than a year old.

Under the current veterans education benefit, called the Montgomery GI Bill, active duty service-members are eligible for up to $9,600 in annual education benefits over four years. The flat payment remains the same regardless of the cost of the school.

In a joint statement submitted to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee last July, two Defense Dept. officials — Tom Bush, the principal director of manpower & personnel and Curt Gilroy, director of accession policy — argued that the Montgomery Bill offers ample benefits to troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

‘[T]he current MGIB program for active duty is basically sound and serves its purpose in support of the all-volunteer force,” Bush and Gilroy said in their written testimony. “The department finds no need for the kind of sweeping (and expensive) changes offered [by the Webb proposal].”

Eileen Lainez, a Defense Dept. spokeswoman, said the Pentagon is sticking to that message pending further examination of Webb’s proposal.

Veterans groups and other proponents argue that the Montgomery Bill, passed during the relative calm of the Cold War, is an unsuitable reward for the sacrifices America’s service-members are making today in Iraq and Afghanistan. The $9,600 allowance does not even cover tuition at many colleges, they say, not to mention the added costs of room, board and books.

Under Webb’s plan, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans would be eligible for full state education benefits, including tuition as high as that charged by the most expensive state school. The bill also encourages private colleges to assist returning soldiers by offering a federal dollar-to-dollar match for any cost breaks those institutions give to veterans. In another break from the existing GI Bill, Webb’s proposal would offer members of the National Guard identical benefits.

“I see the educational benefits in this bill,” Webb said in a statement, “as crucial to a service member’s readjustment to civilian life and as a cost of war that should receive the same priority that funding the war has received the last five years.”

An identical proposal, sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), is gaining steam in the House, where the Veterans’ Affairs Economic Opportunity Subcommittee has scheduled an Apr. 16 hearing.

Meanwhile, much has been made of Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) refusal to endorse the GI Bill expansion. Despite entreaties from Webb, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee has said repeatedly that he supports the concept but has yet to delve into the details of the proposal.

A McCain spokeswoman said Wednesday that the senator has not yet made a determination.

McCain’s silence has puzzled veterans’ advocates, who wonder why the much-celebrated prisoner of the Vietnam War is reluctant to support a better GI Bill for a younger generation.

“I don’t think he’s communicated adequately his reasons for not supporting it, and I’m not sure why,” Hilleman said. “If there’s any veterans’ issue he should support, it’s this one.”

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