Despite a veto threat from the White House, congressional leaders are seeking to expand educational benefits for military veterans.
The ongoing war in Iraq — now more than five years old — is prompting many lawmakers to consider a major expansion of the veterans’ GI Bill to levels that would cover full tuition at the most costly public colleges and universities.
The Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act would expand GI Bill benefits dramatically for individuals who have served three years in the military since Sept. 11, 2001. In addition to tuition at a four-year college or university, recipients could receive a $1,000 monthly stipend.
While supporters acknowledge the measure could cost upwards of $2 billion a year, they say that figure is less than the United States spends weekly on the war in Iraq. Sponsors would fund the bill by raising taxes on individuals making more than $500,000 a year and couples earning above $1 million annually.
Many education groups also endorse the plan.
“It’s the least we can do for these individuals,” says Gabriel Pendas, president of the United States Student Association.
Pendas, who has a younger brother on active duty in Iraq, says many of those currently fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have dreams to attend college. “They want to live the American dream,” he tells Diverse. “It seems like such an easy piece of legislation to pass.”
If enacted into law, the measure is likely to help many young adults of color since some minority groups, particularly African- Americans, are overrepresented in the U.S. military.
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Blacks make up 17 percent of the armed forces, higher than their 11 percent share of the total U.S. work force. Hispanics are about 9 percent of those in the military, slightly below their share among the general work force.
But as with many initiatives in Washington, the path toward enactment is not smooth. While some opponents have cited the law’s cost, others have said it may discourage re-enlistments at a time when the military is struggling to meet its enrollment targets.
The issue has bubbled up into the presidential campaign during the past month. While the plan has support from Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the likely Republican candidate, opposes the bill. McCain, a former prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, says the plan could hurt retention in the military, especially among enlisted members who, if they remain in the military, may become noncommissioned officers.
“By hurting retention, we will reduce the numbers of men and women whom we train to become the backbone of all the services: the noncommissioned officer,” McCain said. “Encouraging people not to choose to become noncommissioned officers would hurt the military and our country very badly.”
McCain questioned also whether the bill should provide soldiers with one enlistment the same benefits as those who served more than one tour of duty.
But Democrats are strongly behind the bill. Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a former Navy secretary, is the Senate’s chief sponsor and says the measure would provide long overdue benefits that could help jump-start the U.S. economy. The current GI Bill was a peacetime benefit, he says, and falls far short of the cost of higher education.
Veterans’ groups are also endorsing the measure.
Rather than discourage retention, a stronger GI Bill might increase military recruitment, says Harry Colmery, national commander of the American Legion. “This bill would encourage young men and women to join the military,” he adds.
The House passed the measure by a 256-166 margin, and the plan cleared the Senate by a 75-22 vote. But an aide to Webb says the two versions have slight differences that may require a House/Senate conference committee to produce a final product. Congressional aides were meeting to determine whether a conference committee is necessary for the bill.
The White House has said President Bush may veto the bill in its current form. A statement of policy from the administration says it “could harm retention rates” in the military.
For his part, McCain has offered an alternative with an increase in monthly benefits, elimination of an enrollment fee and $1,000 annually for books and supplies. His plan would allow the transfer of unused benefits to spouses and children.
But those changes are not sufficient to help returning veterans meet the high cost of college, Pendas says. “We need to give them the opportunity they deserve,” he says. “More is always better, given the expense of higher education.”
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