Congressional Democrats are pushing what could become the most dramatic expansion of college aid for military veterans since World War II, with a bill they hope will buoy them this U.S. election season and become an albatross for Republicans.
Pitched by the Democrats is a plan that would essentially guarantee a full-ride scholarship to any in-state public university, along with a monthly housing stipend, for individuals who serve the military for at least three years.
The proposal would give veterans 15 years to use the benefit, instead of the current 10-year limit, and would set up a new government program that matches financial aid by more expensive private institutions.
For a pricey public school that benefit might be worth as much as $31,000 per school year, compared to the $9,900 average benefit that veterans are given now.
“Meeting the needs of our veterans is a cost of war,” said the leader of the House of
Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, who described the bill as a “thank you” to the troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While Democratic leaders say they see a yes-vote on their proposal as a no-brainer for any lawmaker facing voters this November, the new benefits plan has Republicans and even some members of the more fiscally conservative Democratic rank-and-file balking at the cost.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the proposal would cost $51.8 billion in the next 10 years.
The Pentagon has said that it is open to boosting college aid, even substantially, for veterans but wants the commitment to extend to at least six years, instead of three, before the full benefit kicks in.
“The last thing we want to do is create a situation in which we are losing our men and women who we have worked so hard to train,” said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell.
Republican Sen. John McCain and two other senators have proposed an alternative that would boost the maximum monthly stipend for veterans from $1,100 a month to $1,500 a month.
Democratic Sen. Jim Webb counters that his legislation would be more effective in attracting new recruits and would offset any drop in the military’s ranks.
“I can’t think of a better way to broaden (the) propensity to serve than to offer a truly meaningful educational benefit, rather than simply taking that smaller demographic” of those already enlisted “and pound on it” with repeated combat tours, he said.
Democrats are pushing Webb’s bill and other domestic add-ons, including a major expansion of state unemployment benefits, as part of a larger $195 billion package that would pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through early next year. A House vote is planned this week.
President George W. Bush is expected to veto the measure if it is sent to him with added domestic spending, including the veterans’ bill. In a closed-door meeting last week, Bush urged a group of House Republicans to reject the bill and uphold any veto if the legislation does not adhere to his request.
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