Wednesday, May 21, 2008

What's behind the battle over the new G.I. Bill?

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By Barbara Barrett

WASHINGTON — The GI Bill touted by recruiting posters and the Pentagon often falls short for more than a million troops returning from war, paying just over half the national average cost of a public college education.

The program, which provides college benefits for veterans, doesn't pay for books and housing, causing many students to work.

"They use it to live off of," said Henry Johnson, a financial aid officer who works with veterans at Durham Technical Community College, where nearly 200 veterans attend school. "They need the money for their food, for their rent, for their transportation."

The Senate is poised to vote as soon as today on a new GI Bill tucked inside a massive funding measure. It could affect 1.4 million men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.

The Bush administration opposes the legislation. Department of Defense officials said this spring that the richer benefits could tempt soldiers to leave the military. And President Bush has threatened to veto the legislation if it includes anything beyond his funding request.

The new GI Bill, sponsored by Sen. Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat, would cover the cost of attending the most expensive, in-state public institution in a veteran's home state, along with a monthly housing stipend. It would cost about $50 billion over 10 years.

For private schools, the bill would match any assistance from the colleges. The bill, with more than 300 co-sponsors, passed the House last week as part of the war spending package.

"With the new bill, they're about to give them everything but the kitchen sink. That's great," said Chuck Sanchez, veteran services coordinator for Fayetteville Technical Community College, which has more than 700 veterans enrolled.

For months, members of Congress have been hearing from troops who say they can only afford one semester a year, or that they can only afford local community colleges -- not major universities.

"Basically, recruiters say, 'Hey, you sign up for the military, we'll pay for your school,' " said Eric Hilleman, deputy director of the national legislative office for Veterans of Foreign Wars. "They're not saying, 'Hey, we'll pay for a little bit of your school.' "

Sen. Richard Burr, the top Republican on the Senate Veteran Affairs committee, has his own plan for the GI Bill, ideas that align more closely with the Pentagon's concerns about retention.

Burr's proposal, written with GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, would raise monthly payments from $1,100 to $1,500 for active-duty troops and to $1,200 for Guard and Reserve troops. Guard and Reservists now often receive just a few hundred dollars a month.

His bill also allows troops to give their education dollars to relatives after 12 years in the military, a provision to improve retention that earned Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole's support as a co-sponsor.

Many veterans have been frustrated that six years after Sept. 11, a new GI Bill still hasn't emerged.

"It's a crime that this Congress and Senate haven't gotten their act together to go ahead and just lay down their swords and be bipartisan and put this through," said Raymond Yamrus, national legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars in North Carolina.

The first GI Bill passed during World War II, allowing a generation of fighters to return home and attend for free any college they could get into -- including Harvard.

Over the decades the bill has evolved. But the payments were linked to the consumer price index, and education costs have skyrocketed at a much higher pace.

Sanchez, who counsels veterans at Fayetteville State, hears the tales of cash-strapped veterans struggling to adjust.

Students switch focus, putting them behind.

Some can't afford to pay tuition up-front, but the government check arrives too late, so they miss a semester.

They have to pay their mortgages, their car payments and for their groceries, and so the education money seeps into other bill payments.

"This new bill would allow them, as long as they were responsible about their life, they could go back to school in many cases without having to look for a job," Sanchez said. "It creates more access to a four-year school from the beginning."

Republican opposition

Still, the GI Bill faces opposition both in Congress and the White House.

Webb's $50 billion bill would increase benefits over time as higher-education costs rise.

The Burr/Graham/McCain bill would cost $34 billion over the same 10 years, but its cost rises only as quickly as the consumer price index.

In five years, that bill will pay for only 58 percent of the cost of education at a public school, said Patrick Campbell, legislative director for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "We will be in the same situation."

Yamrus, with the VFW in North Carolina, said he met Burr in a Capitol Hill hallway a few weeks ago during a lobbying trip. He suspects Burr is trying to "destroy" Webb's bill with his own version.

"He was so proud and sticking out his chest and flapping his wings about it," Yamrus recalled. "And I told him we don't like it."

Pete Hegseth, chairman of Vets for Freedom, a group that supports the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he believes the two bills could be merged. He likes that Webb's would increase funding as higher-education costs go up, but he thinks Burr's bill could start working more quickly.

"We certainly need an upgrade," Hegseth said.

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