On Wednesday night, after more than a month of
intense wrangling, the House reached an agreement on a bipartisan war spending bill that includes generously expanded education and unemployment benefits for veterans as part of the 21st Century GI Bill. The measure is up for a vote in the House on Thursday (June 19), with a Senate vote expected on Tuesday and strong indications from President Bush that he is willing to sign off on the $165 billion war funding bill.
The agreement came just four days before the 64th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's signing of the original GI Bill of Rights, which helped nearly 8 million World War II veterans attend college by guaranteeing a four-year education to those who'd served in the military for at least six months.
The new bill would provide more than $50 billion over 10 years in college funding for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, according to the Wall Street Journal, and it marked a rare permanent update to the GI Bill. Eligible veterans would receive tuition aid up to the cost of the most expensive public college in their state, in addition to a monthly housing stipend, more than doubling the value of the benefit from
$40,000 to $90,000. The bill provides the benefits for veterans who have served three years of active duty or more since September 11, 2001.
The war funding bill was held up for more than three weeks due to disagreements between House Democratic leaders and the White House over spending priorities. The House had passed the tuition benefits a month ago but declined to provide additional funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Senate passed the bill a week later, but only after putting the money for the wars back in. The new version provides funding for the wars into June of 2009, the expansion of veterans' education benefits and a 13-week extension of unemployment insurance for all states.
Per the White House's demands, the bill does not include any policy restrictions on how the war funding can be spent, and it also provides $2.7 billion in aid for Midwestern states affecting by recent flooding.
"After 17 months of working with veterans' groups and colleagues, it appears that Senator Webb's goal of providing a comprehensive GI bill for our newest generation of veterans is about to be realized," said Jessica Smith, a spokeswoman for Jim Webb, the Vietnam veteran and Virginia Democratic Senator who introduced the update.
Though some House Democrats were not thrilled with all the provisions of the war funding bill, the Journal reported that they agreed to compromise with Republicans in order to pass the legislation before the July 4 recess and avoid a veto fight with the White House. The extension of war funding means that the winner of this year's presidential election will have the next say in how, or whether, to continue funding military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The compromise bill helped end a deadlock among Democrats, who agreed late in talks to drop a provision to pay for the new GI Bill benefits by imposing a half-percentage point income-tax surcharge on those with incomes exceeding $500,000 for single taxpayers, or $1 million for married couples, according to The Associated Press.
By gaining Republican support, Democrats were able to avoid relying on the votes of the more fiscally conservative "Blue Dog" Dems, who insisted that the estimated $63 billion in new GI Bill benefits should be funded, per budget rules, by a revenue increase or spending cut, instead of being added to the deficit. In order to achieve the bipartisan passage, Democrats had to agree to less robust unemployment benefits for veterans.
The president praised the bipartisan effort in a statement from his press secretary. "President Bush understands that military families throughout our country are making great sacrifices as their loved ones serve at home and abroad," it read. "Throughout his administration, he has been committed to ensuring that our service members and their families receive the highest level of support from our grateful nation. ... Yesterday, House leaders reached a bipartisan agreement on a supplemental war funding bill that would deliver critical support to our men and women in uniform. The president is pleased that Congress answered his call to ensure that military families will soon be able to transfer their unused education benefits to their spouse or children. This legislation will build upon the GI Bill's historic legacy of ensuring brighter futures for service members and their families. We urge both the House and Senate to immediately pass this bipartisan agreement."