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GI Bill Survives Partisanship

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/webb5.jpgSen. James Webb (D-Va.)(WDCpix)

Just a few weeks ago, the push to provide full college tuition benefits to post-9/11 veterans seemed in real trouble. In the House, a group of moderate Democrats, known as Blue Dogs, was fighting the bill because it wasn’t paid for. In the Senate, Republicans objected vehemently to the tax hike eventually proposed to cover the tab. And hovering above the debate, the White House threatened a veto, citing concerns about cost and troop retention.

What a difference a few weeks make.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

The Senate late Thursday approved roughly $160 billion in funding for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, along with the additional $62 billion to expand the GI Bill for veterans of those conflicts. The vote was an overwhelming 92 to 6. The House had passed the bill earlier in the year, and it now goes to the White House, where President George W. Bush is expected to sign it into law next week.

The vote marks a major victory for veterans advocates, who have made updating the existing Montgomery GI Bill the centerpiece of a years-long lobbying effort on Capitol Hill. Supporters say the improved benefit is an appropriate reward for the sacrifices of troops serving in a time of war.

“This is not simply an expansion of veterans’ educational benefits,” Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), a Vietnam veteran and sponsor of the bill, said in a statement. “This is a new program, a deserved program. It has now been nearly seven years since 9/11 — seven years since those who have been serving in our military began earning the right for a proper wartime GI Bill.”

The package marks the end of a months-long tug-of-war between the White House and Democrats over how to proceed with the last war spending bill under Bush’s tenure. The GI Bill was part of a larger domestic spending package — including a 13-week extension of unemployment benefits — accepted by Bush in return for no-strings funding for the wars through the rest of his term.

But passage didn’t come easy. Despite broad bipartisan support, the proposal drew opposition from the White House and some congressional Republicans, who argued that the generous benefit would pull troops from the field and into the classroom. The resulting exodus, critics said, would only harm an all-volunteer force already relying on multiple deployments to fill the ranks. The Bush administration vowed to veto the bill, but relented when Democrats added language allowing service-members to transfer their benefits to children and spouses. The “transferability” provision, the Defense Dept. said, would help retain soldiers on the battlefields.

The proposal also faced hurdles in the House, where conservative-leaning Democrats — the Blue Dogs — objected not to the policy but to the process. They wanted to offset the cost with a tax hike on millionaire families — a provision with no chance of passing the Senate. In the end, the White House and Senate Republicans got their wish, but the Blue Dogs did not: the GI Bill will be funded with borrowed money.

Under the bill, veterans serving at least three years of active duty since 9/11 will be eligible for full tuition at the most expensive public school in their state of residence. Additional funding will be provided for books, board, supplies and other fees. Acknowledging the expanded role of the National Guard and Reserve in Iraq and Afghanistan, members of those groups who have served active-duty will receive identical benefits.

Supporters say the bill brings the education benefits up to par with those under the original GI Bill, enacted in the wake of World War II. That legislation is often credited with bolstering an entire generation of WWII vets and helping to create a vast American middle class. Indeed, several of the Senate sponsors of the bill were recipients of the original program.

“The Montgomery GI Bill was good, peacetime legislation,” said George Lisicki, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, “but it only paid about 70 percent of the average cost of today’s public tuitions, and barely 30 percent at private schools. That’s just not a good enough incentive for someone to join a military that’s been at war for almost seven years.”

The issue threatened to become an election-year talking point when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the likely GOP nominee, sided with the White House in opposing the bill. McCain and several other Republicans introduced an alternative proposal offering lesser benefits. Their position was skewered by veterans groups and Democrats, including likely presidential nominee Sen.Barack Obama (Ill.). But the politics surrounding the issue has since been neutered: McCain announced his support for the Webb bill after the transferability language was added.

For supporters of the bill, the policy was always the goal.

“There are no politics here,” Webb said. “This is about taking care of the people who have taken care of us.”

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