- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 29, 2008

Speculation about Virginia Sen. Jim Webb‘s prospects as a candidate for the Democratic vice presidential nomination got a boost last week with the passage of an important GI benefits bill — a signal achievement for a freshman lawmaker that won him praise from both parties.

The artfully crafted bill allowed Democrats to tangibly support U.S. troops while still opposing the war. The gesture toward troops straining to cope with near-constant deployments also drew no small amount of Republican support.

If President Bush signs the bill as expected, it will be one of the most significant pieces of legislation approved by Congress this year.

Just two years ago, the Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Democrat was waging a long-shot bid for Senate against popular Republican incumbent Sen. George F. Allen — having switched parties in order to mount a campaign against the war in Iraq.

See related story: Biden against all odds.

Today, the former Marine commander in Vietnam — where he earned the Navy Cross and the Silver Star, among many other medals — is increasingly seen on the shortlist of potential running mates for Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. It’s a posting he swears he doesn’t want.

In an interview Friday with The Washington Times, Mr. Webb focused on his legislative priorities.

“I hope that the way we have worked across the aisle on this legislation will be useful as we work on other issues,” Mr. Webb said. “I think it’s a good feeling when you can work together and get something like this done.”

Favorable reviews for the bill’s passage abound for the 62-year-old best-selling novelist, who also added to his credentials with the recent publication of a political book, “A Time to Fight.”

For the former Navy secretary under President Reagan to shepherd the measure through both chambers with no prior legislative experience makes the feat even more remarkable.

“It wouldn’t happen without his tenacity and willingness to push this proposal all the way to the end,” said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. “It’s very impressive.”

Mr. Webb’s bill provides educational benefits to Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who served after 9/11, similar to those given to veterans returning from World War II. It provides full tuition, as well as money for fees, books and housing, at a public college in a veteran’s state of residence.

The bill — which had nearly 60 co-sponsors in the Senate, 302 in the House and will cost an estimated $62 billion over 10 years — also allows additional payments of up to $1,200 for tutorial assistance. As many as 450,000 veterans are expected to take advantage of the benefits offered by the bill.

The Senate passed the bill 92-6 Thursday as part of a war funding bill. The House — following Democrats’ concession that the benefits can be transferred to a recipient’s spouse or children — approved it the week before with a 416-12 vote.

Mr. Webb initially had to spar with the White House, Pentagon and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain on aspects of the measure.

Mr. McCain, of Arizona, a fellow Vietnam veteran, initially introduced his own GI package but has since come out in support of Mr. Webb’s. The White House, citing the addition of the transferability option, said Thursday that President Bush would not veto it.

Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, who is retiring at the end of this term, said Mr. Webb’s achievement with the GI bill will stand as a “hallmark.”

“He came to the United States Senate, and he indicated his top priority was to get a revision of the existing framework of laws governing the GI bill because he felt very strongly, based on his long and heroic service to this country in uniform, that we owe this generation everything that previous generations had received by virtue of educational benefits,” Mr. Warner said.

Mr. Webb said speculation about a spot on Mr. Obama’s ticket is “totally apart” from his GI Bill.

“[The bill] is just something that needs to be done,” Mr. Webb said.

Some who say Mr. Webb could appeal to blue-collar workers alienated by Mr. Obama and help the nominee carry Virginia, which has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964.

Those opposed to his selection say the senator is too brash and averse to the campaign trail to be a successful sidekick. In a June 9 piece posted on www.slate.com, Timothy Noah called Mr. Webb “a bit of a blowhard” with a “volcanic temperament.”

“Nominating Webb isn’t worth the risk that he’ll alienate important constituencies, embarrass Obama, or break with him outright, as John Nance Garner did with Franklin Roosevelt,” Mr. Noah wrote. “He’s trouble, and Obama’s already had too much of that.”

Obama spokesman Michael Rodriguez said the Illinois Democrat “greatly respects the extraordinary service and sacrifices that Senator Webb has made for our country as a Marine, Navy secretary, and U.S. senator.”

“Early on, Senator Webb recognized the need to improve college opportunities for our returning service members, and he assembled a bipartisan coalition of senators to introduce and pass a 21st-century GI Bill,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “Senator Obama is honored to serve with such a tireless advocate for our service members and veterans.”

Approval of the GI Bill also represents the culmination of a campaign promise made by Mr. Webb during his Senate bid.

Mr. Webb’s son, Jimmy Webb, is a Marine who has been deployed to Iraq multiple times, and the senator has noted that both he and Mr. McCain received their post-Vietnam educations thanks to the current GI Bill.

Aided by several of Mr. Allen’s missteps, Mr. Webb earned a razor-thin victory in the November 2006 Senate election despite critics who cited excerpts from his writings to contend the former Navy secretary did not respect women.

His victory secured the transfer of power in Congress — one reason Democrats chose him to rebut the president’s State of the Union address the following January.

“Most people who come from [outside of Congress] chafe at the pace and the process that the Founding Fathers set up,” said Brad Fitch, chief executive officer of Knowlegis — a company that provides power rankings for congressional members at the Web site www.congress.org. “Here’s a guy who not only didn’t chafe at it, he thrived at it.”

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