House GI Bill to Hitch a Ride on the Iraq Supplemental

Posted April 29, 2008 at 1:47pm

Congressional leaders from both parties on Tuesday sought to de-politicize the need for swift passage of a “GI Bill for the 21st Century” aimed at improving college education benefits for war veterans.

Joined by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) said the effort to advance his proposed legislation was “spawned not by politics” but by the need to reward soldiers for their service through education.

Pointing to a laundry list of Democrats and Republicans who have signed onto his measure, which would update the GI bill for the first time in decades, Webb said he “would like to think that we can set an example for how the government writ large should work.”

The bill would allow troops returning home from Iraq or Afghanistan to earn 36 months of benefits, including tuition, books and fees, up to the costs of the most expensive in-state public university. It would also provide a monthly $1,000 living stipend in addition to funds for tutorial assistance and licensing and certifications tests.

Webb and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) introduced the bill, which now has 58 sponsors, of which 11 are Republicans. The House version of the bill, introduced by Rep. Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.), has 241 co-sponsors, of which 79 are Republicans.

In the House, a senior Democratic aide confirmed that leaders will attach the bill to the forthcoming war supplemental measure, versus trying to pass Mitchell’s stand-alone legislation. In this scenario, the bill’s estimated annual price tag of $2 billion to $4 billion a year would not be offset.

Tuesday’s push comes as advocates are becoming anxious that the bill might not advance, due largely to the concerns of military brass that enhanced educational opportunities could negatively impact retention rates.

So far, however, the bill continues to receive the support of key Senators, including Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and former Armed Services Chairman John Warner (R-Va.).

“We cannot retain those who we cannot recruit,” Akaka said.

Referring to 1940s war-time posters that call on people to volunteer for their country, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) added, “Your country still needs you, but it needs you to get your education.”