Democratic Sen. Jim Webb outflanked top Republicans by courting veterans groups to create a “21st Century GI Bill,” a legislative gambit that has again put GOP lawmakers at odds with President Bush and the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain.
Most major veterans groups, who generally have been supportive of the Bush administration, are solidly behind the measure to expand college aid for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and they want Mr. Bush to reconsider his promised veto.
“This was clearly a cooperative operation, bipartisan and with involvement with the veterans service organizations,” said Steve Robertson, legislative affairs director with the American Legion. “That’s why I think everyone’s pretty much in sync with it … it was a group effort.”
Veterans groups say that wasn’t the case with a competing and less-costly Republican proposal sponsored by Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Richard M. Burr of North Carolina and Mr. McCain of Arizona.
“We didn’t have that much input into [the Republican version] - there was no dialogue to my knowledge other than ‘this is it,’” Mr. Robertson said.
Congressional Democrats are trying to parlay the support into a legislative victory on a supplemental spending bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - onto which the GI measure has been attached - and make it an election issue as well.
Likely Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama attacked Mr. McCain for not supporting it. Mr. McCain, a Vietnam war hero, shot back that his affection for veterans is surpassed by no one.
Democrats have repeatedly failed at tacking troop withdrawal deadlines to war spending bills. But when they linked their GI bill to the most-recent war spending measures, the packages easily passed the House and Senate last month. Because the Senate made changes to the initial House measure, the House must again vote on the bill, which could come as soon as this week.
Capitol Hill Republicans also have split with Mr. Bush in recent weeks on other matters, such as supporting a massive farm measure that gives subsidies to farmers and money for nutrition programs such as food stamps, and voting to stop the government from filling the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
Congress easily voted to overturn Mr. Bush’s veto of the farm measure. And the president withdrew his initial opposition to filling the oil reserve and let the bill stand.
The Virginia Democrat’s proposal, co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, is modeled after the nation’s original GI bill that allowed millions of World War II veterans to attend college. It would provide full tuition, including money for fees, books and housing, based on the most-expensive public college in a veteran’s state of residence.
Full benefits would be available to all members of the military who have served on active duty for at least three years since Sept. 11, 2001, including activated reservists and National Guard members. Military personnel serving at least three months but less than three years would be eligible for partial benefits.
The White House and Pentagon oppose the Webb-Hagel bill, saying that providing such a large benefit after only three years of service would cause military personnel to leave after their initial term of duty expired.
But veterans service organizations say it’s doubtful that increased education benefits would result in a mass exodus of service members quitting after their first term.