Despite a veto threat from President Bush and with the presumptive Republican candidate to replace him in absentia, the U.S. Senate on Thursday approved legislation that would dramatically enhance educational benefits for veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it did so, supporters of the measure were quick to note, by a margin (75-22) that could comfortably override the president's veto. The legislation will now go back to the House, which passed a parallel bill last month but failed to muster a similar veto-proof margin.
"Congress today resolutely asserted that it is time for those of us who have been calling on these brave men and women to serve again and again to assist in providing a meaningful chance for a first-class future," said Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who has led the push for the major expansion of tuition benefits for former service members. "This is a bill that is equal to the first-class service that they have given to this country."
Under the measure, which was attached to a spending bill for the Iraq war by Webb, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and John Warner of Virginia (all of whom served in the military), veterans who have served on active duty since September 11 would receive payments covering tuition -- up to the cost of in-state tuition at the most expensive public college in a veteran’s state -- room, board, fees, and educational costs, plus a $1,000 monthly stipend.
That is significantly more than former service members are now eligible to receive under the current Montgomery GI Bill, which was enacted in peacetime and does not come close to covering the cost of attending the typical public university.
President Bush has promised to veto the supplemental spending bill, mainly because it contains billions of dollars for domestic programs (including the veterans' education benefits) that he argues has no place in a supplemental spending bill designed to provide funds for the war. The White House's Statement of Administrative Policy expressing its opposition to the measure sought to make clear that the administration supports expanding educational benefits for veterans, citing its support of an alternative measure introduced last month by Sen. John McCain of Arizona and other Republican leaders.
McCain, whose campaign for president has emphasized his status as a war hero, has been under intense pressure from veterans' groups to support the Webb bill. Putting forward the alternative measure has not eased that pressure, and that may explain why the roll call of Thursday's vote in the Senate lists him as "not voting." Rather than cast a difficult vote, he spent the day raising money and attending campaign events in California.
Also of interest to some segments of higher education, the supplemental spending bill includes several hundred million dollars in additional funding for scientific research, including $200 million for the National Science Foundation and $100 million for the Energy Department's Office of Science.