- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 4, 2008

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.

“People are leaving after their first enlistment because they are tired of being shot at, and [because] their families are tired of the frequent deployments,” Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) National Commander George Lisicki said in May after meeting with President Bush. “Whether they stay in four years or 20, we owe this newest, greatest generation the gift of education.”

The Bush administration backed the Graham-Burr-McCain measure, which would increase to $1,500 from $1,100 the monthly benefit currently available to most veterans. The stipend would increase to $2,000 a month after 12 years of service.

As an incentive for military personnel to re-enlist when their service contracts expire, the Republican proposal called for a “transferability” provision that would allow veterans to pass their benefits to their spouse and children.

But while many veterans groups support giving service members the option to transfer education benefits to their family, the provision wasn’t enough to sway support to the Graham-Burr-McCain proposal.

“Transferability is not something we believe is the silver bullet to solve the retention woes that the [Department of Defense] has continuously been facing,” said Eric Hilleman, the VFW’s deputy director for legislative affairs.

The Republican version died in the Senate in May when Democrats blocked a Republican attempt to offer the bill as an amendment to legislation to give police officers and firefighters the right to unionize. The Senate voted 55-42 to kill the amendment.

Many Democrats and supporters of the Webb-Hagel version emphasize that the Graham-Burr-McCain bill was drafted as a political maneuver to protect Mr. McCain from any political fallout on the presidential campaign trail for opposing the bill.

The Graham-Burr-McCain plan is “very partisan and is seen as a way to convolute the GI bill, or to slow the Webb-Hagel proposal down,” Mr. Hilleman said.

“We think there is some very, very desirable features in [the Republican version] but I think this is sort of plowing old ground here” at this point, added Bob Norton, deputy director of government relations with the Military Officers Association of America.

“Now that you’ve got overwhelming bipartisan support in both houses to the Webb bill, I’m not sure whether there’s really much of a need to talk about other legislation that’s out there.”

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