Bush OKs $162 billion for war, GI bill

President Bush on Monday signed a $162 billion spending bill to fund U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan that will also extend unemployment benefits and disburse $63 billion over the next decade to dramatically improve college benefits for returning war veterans.

The emergency spending measure pushes 2008 federal spending past the $3 trillion mark, meaning that the federal budget will have increased by $1.5 trillion in real dollars during Mr. Bush’s eight years in office.

Mr. Bush, speaking to reporters in the Oval Office after signing the bill, emphasized that for the second year in a row, he overcame Democrats’ plans to include a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. He has now secured funding for the Iraq and Afghanistan operations through the end of his presidency.

“I appreciate that Republicans and Democrats in Congress agreed to provide these vital funds without tying the hands of our commanders, and without an artificial timetable of withdrawal from Iraq,” Mr. Bush said, with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and three other officials standing behind him.

He also credited his troop surge for increasing stability.

“Our troops have driven the terrorists and extremists from many strongholds in Iraq; today violence is at the lowest level since March of 2004,” he said.

In contrast to last year, when Mr. Bush vetoed the first supplemental funding bill because of the inclusion of a withdrawal timetable and came under serious criticism for “staying the course” in a tumultuous conflict, the president this year faced little serious opposition from the Democrat-controlled Congress in obtaining funding.

White House press secretary Dana Perino called the absence of an Iraq withdrawal timetable “a victory.”

But Mrs. Perino also acknowledged that the president made concessions in signing the bill, which pushed overall spending for 2008 from $2.9 trillion to $3 trillion.

The White House had initially opposed including the extension of unemployment insurance payments that average $300 a week for up to 4 million people who have lost their job after working at least 20 weeks.

“That was one of the things we did compromise on,” she said, but added that the White House negotiated with Democrats to reduce the extension from 26 weeks to 13.

The White House agreed in mid-June to drop its objections to a revamped “GI bill” that will update and more than double education benefits for U.S. military veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

“This is a day of incredible celebration for our country’s newest generation of veterans and their families,” said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “Thanks to today’s passage of a modern GI Bill, the future is much brighter for the more than 1.6 million Americans who have served in the current conflicts.”

The new GI Bill removes the requirement that veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan must pay $1,200 to qualify for college tuition aid and doubles the value of the aid from about $40,000 to $90,000 for those who have served at least three years in active duty.

Those who have served less than three years can still qualify for a percentage of the benefit, and the bill also allows them to transfer the eligibility to a service member’s spouse or children.

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