Congress Tries To Reach Middle Ground On New GI Bill, But Cost Remains A Sticking Point

Parties still disagree on how much to pay for veterans' education benefits, and how to fund them.

The long road to a new GI Bill just keeps getting bumpier. As lawmakers attempt to pass a bill to increase veterans’ college-tuition benefits, there have been moments of compromise and outbursts of frustration in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

On Monday, it looked as though the two main sides of the debate on Capitol Hill were reaching out to each other. Republican presidential candidate and Arizona Senator John McCain sent a letter to Democratic Senator Jim Webb of Virginia in an effort to compromise on the two senators’ GI Bill plans, according to Politico.com, which posted excerpts of the communiqué.

“Each of us supports increasing education benefits for our nation’s veterans,” read the letter, which was also signed by Republican Senators Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) and Richard Burr (North Carolina), who are co-sponsoring McCain’s version of the GI Bill. “We believe this must be accomplished as quickly as possible.”

Webb’s legislation, dubbed the 21st Century GI Bill, would pay for complete in-state tuition at the most expensive public institution in any state. McCain’s version focuses on increasing benefits for people who stay in the military longer and allows those in the military to transfer more of their benefits to spouses and children.

Webb and Graham have been in touch this week to discuss the competing bills, and talks between the two offices are ongoing. But on Wednesday (May 14), the Senate got chaotic after Graham attempted to attach the original version of McCain’s bill onto an unrelated piece of legislation.

Webb called the action a “bad faith gesture” and “irresponsible” at a press conference after the Senate voted 55-42 to kill the amendment. Six Republicans voted with the majority of Democrats.

The move to attach McCain’s bill, according to Republican sources close to the situation, was meant to show the Democratic leadership that supporters of the plan would not be bullied around. It was not a shot at either Webb or the negotiations, the sources said.

The Senate may vote on the 21st Century GI Bill as early as next week. It currently has 58 co-sponsors and only needs two more votes to move forward in the Senate.

The House version of Webb’s bill, which will be up for a vote on Thursday, also has bipartisan support, but the cost of its proposed benefits is still causing a lot of debate and infighting among Democrats. The conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition has raised issues over how to pay for the massive program. They have threatened not to support it without a funding plan. One idea, backed by leading Blue Dog Tennessee Representative John Tanner, is a new surtax on households that make more than $1 million, but Senate leaders have already rejected the plan.

“Adding a program and not planning to pay for it is not a good idea,” Tanner’s communications director Randy Ford said. “We need a proposal that is paid for over the next 10 years, without us going into more debt.”

The fight over how to pay for a new GI Bill will be important no matter which version makes it to the president’s desk. Right now, both sides are trying to get their bills wrapped into emergency wartime spending packages for Iraq and Afghanistan. For the record, such emergency spending packages are also not planned or funded ahead of time.

All of this is very frustrating for many of the veterans and organizations that have been working to get a new GI Bill passed for more than 16 months.

“These are the Washington Mickey Mouse games that make people upset with Congress,” said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “To the average vet on the street, this just looks like a dysfunctional government process.”