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Twenty-six veterans groups rallied on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to support a bipartisan measure to improve GI Bill benefits that now has 58 Senate and 249 House co-sponsors. But their message may be slightly tarnished by Defense Secretary Robert Gates' announcement that he opposes the measure.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the 21st Century GI Bill — S 22 in the Senate and HR 5740 in the House of Representatives — is close to becoming law. "This legislation is wise; it has consensus; it brings us together in a bipartisan way, and we are definitely going to leave no veteran behind," Pelosi said, pledging, "we are going to say thank you to our veterans by sending them to college."
The 21st Century GI Bill also is known as the Post-9/11 Veterans' Educational Assistance Act, and was introduced in January 2007 by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., who is pressing for a vote on his bill this year. Getting the bill through the Senate requires 60 votes in order to avoid parliamentary delays that could be thrown in front of the bill by a group of Republicans who last week unveiled their own GI bill plan, which is more to the liking of the Pentagon and the Bush administration.
"We need to move expeditiously to get this vital piece of legislation passed this year for our returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans," Webb said. "The educational benefits in this bill are crucial to a service member's readjustment to civilian life, and are a cost of war that should receive the same priority that funding the war has received the last five years."
The House and Senate are both talking about attaching GI Bill legislation to the wartime supplemental appropriations bill. In the House, attaching better veterans' benefits to the bill might make some anti-war Democrats more likely to support the measure.
Webb also has planned to attempt to attach his bill to the Senate's version of the war supplemental — if he can muster the 60 votes needed to cut off debate if there is a Republican filibuster.
Gates' letter complicates Webb's effort by opposing S 22 while favoring other bills that include a Pentagon and White House initiative allowing service members to transfer GI bill benefits to family members.
"It is essential to permit transferability of unused education benefits from service members to family," Gates said in the letter to Sen. John McCain, ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a co-sponsor of a Republican alternative bill, which was to be formally introduced on Tuesday. Transferability, Gates said, "is the highest priority set by the service chiefs and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reflecting the strong interest from the field and the fleet," Gates said.
Transferring benefits is good for the family but also good for the services by helping to keep people in the military while family members are using the benefits, Gates said.
Gates also restated long-standing Pentagon opposition to GI Bill educational benefits that are too generous, making it more likely for service members to leave the military to attend college. "Serious" retention issues are expected if benefits exceed the average monthly cost for a four-year public college, including tuition, room, board and fees, Gates said.
Webb's proposal would pay full tuition and fees for a public college plus provide a monthly living allowance equal to the basic allowance for housing of an E-5, which would exceed the level Gates says is acceptable.
The Enhancement of Recruiting, Retention and Readjustment Through Education Act, cosponsored by McCain and other Republicans, provides $1,500 in basic monthly benefits plus $500 a year for books. It also includes transferability of benefits, with the right to transfer all benefits to family members after completing 12 years of service and to transfer half of earned benefits after six years.
The Republican bill might have attracted support from military and veterans groups if the more generous Webb proposal was not on the front burner. But the promises of full tuition plus stipend benefits, similar to what was provided after World War II, are very attractive to major veterans groups and to new organizations representing Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.
A senior Pentagon official, speaking on condition of not being identified, said the McCain bill, co-sponsored by Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Richard Burr of North Carolina, "is retention friendly. It gives education benefits a big boost, but not more than average national costs. We can manage retention at those levels, but S 22 is a retention killer."
"Congress must understand that the volunteer force relies for its very life on retention — not departure incentives," the Pentagon official said. "Those defending S 22 seem to think that getting out is the only way to get an education. Nonsense. DoD is spending $700 million annually to fund 400,000 troops who advance their education every year, while still in the service."
Senate aides speaking on the condition that not be identified, said there is still a chance for a compromise bill that would include ingredients from both the Webb proposal and what the Pentagon is seeking. "We just have not reached the stage where we are talking about compromise, but I believe it will come," said one aide to a senator involved in the disagreement.
William H. McMichael contributed to this report.