McCain charts own course to boost GI benefits

His plan is at odds with a bipartisan bill backed by Clinton and Obama.

Mary Altaffer/AP
Under pressure: Sen. John McCain (R) of Ariz., greeted veterans at the National World War I Museum April 7 in Kansas City, Mo. The senator has proposed his own GI education plan.

Vietnam War veteran Sen. John McCain calls the American GI bill that gave a generation of soldiers an opportunity to receive an education "one of the greatest things about the 20th century." But he disagrees with prominent colleagues about how and how much those benefits should now be expanded for a new crop of veterans.

Senator McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, wants to expand the GI bill but his differences with Sen. James Webb (D) of Virginia, who has been pushing for new legislation for months, reflects the growing tension over how to help veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan in a rational way in an election year.

The bill proposed by Senator Webb, a former Marine and Navy secretary, includes expanded coverage of tuition and living expenses for four years equal to that of the highest-cost in-state public institution where the service member lives (for those who qualify for maximum benefits). Webb, who has bipartisan support for his bill, has been frustrated with the Pentagon, which has not clearly supported the new legislation, apparently over concerns that a generous GI bill will prompt service members to leave the military in wartime.

On Tuesday, under pressure to respond, McCain proposed his own legislation that would increase benefits but also allow them to be transferred to a family member – something the Webb bill doesn't do. Some fear that allowing such a benefit will let service members transfer the benefit without taking advantage of it for themselves.

"While I don't think that anyone disagrees with the overall intent of [Webb's bill], I believe we can and should do more to promote recruitment and retention of servicemen and women and to ensure that veterans and their families receive the education benefits they deserve, and in a timely manner," McCain said in a statement.

Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama are cosponsors of Webb's bill, which has support from prominent Republicans like Sen. John Warner of Virginia.

The current GI bill, updated over the years since it was first passed after World War II, requires service members to pay a one-time fee of $1,200 to apply for the program and then pays up to $1,100 per month for 36 months for education. The program must be used within 10 years of finishing active duty. Only about 8 percent of veterans currently use all their GI bill benefits, according to a veterans group.

The Pentagon has its own view. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said the Pentagon estimates that "serious retention issues" could arise if the GI benefit were expanded too far – if, for example, the amount offered is much larger than actual costs of monthly tuition and room and board, which is now estimated to be $1,500 per month.

Support for expanding GI education benefits in some fashion is widespread. Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and a strong proponent of Webb's legislation, said concerns that the bill's expanded benefits will encourage service members to leave the military is a "very short-sighted argument."

Expanded benefits are "a recruiting tool, readiness tool, and a moral obligation," he says. "The overall net gain is going to outweigh any potential retention problems."

The bill's supporters estimate it will cost between $2.7 billion and $4 billion. But Mr. Rieckhoff argues the cost must be put into context of war costs, which amount to what defense officials say is nearly $10 billion per month. Rieckhoff cites a congressional analysis that showed that for every dollar spent under the original GI bill, seven more were returned to the economy because service members had better jobs and paid more taxes.

Democrats attempted to use McCain's initial opposition to Webb's bill to question his commitment to troops, but his alternative proposal may have quelled those arguments for now.

Advisers to McCain, a fiscal conservative, see such arguments as a stretch to begin with. Whatever is done must be fiscally wise, says Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association, an advocacy group based in the Washington area. "Tell us where the money is going to come from and reassure us this is not going to be pulled away from some other family program," she says.

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