Sunday, April 13, 2008

McCain Still Not On GI Bill, Even As Other Senate Vet Signs Up



The prospects of passing Sen. Jim Webb's 21st Century GI Bill increased on Thursday after Sen. Daniel Akaka, a veteran of WWII and the Democratic chairman of the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee, signed on in support.

"I think we've got a terrific bill," said Webb, "it reflects the desire of all of us to act as proper stewards for all of those who have done so much since 9/11."

Akaka became the 54th cosponsor of the measure -- including 10 Republicans -- which increases educational benefits and reduces school costs for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

In doing so, he left Sen. John McCain as one of the few remaining veterans in Congress to not yet offer his or her support. Indeed, several weeks after the Arizona Republican told a member of the Student Veterans of America that he had "not had the chance to examine [the bill] carefully," and need more time to weigh the measure, McCain's mind is still not made up.

Appearing on The View at roughly the same time that Webb was rolling out Akaka's endorsement, McCain actually argued in favor of the overarching premise of the revamped GI bill.

"We have to expand the military and provide more inducements for them to serve," he said. "There are a certain number joining out of patriotism, thank God. And then there are others that turn 18 or 19 or 20 or 21, and they look at their options. And one of the things we ought to do is provide them with significant educational benefits in return for serving."

But at the same time, the Bush administration and fiscal conservatives have dragged their feet and their influence could be rubbing off on presumptive GOP presidential nominee. The cost of the new GI Bill, they argue, is prohibitive -- roughly $2 billion more annually than the current law (the same as a week of war). And giving soldiers such a strong incentive to leave the armed forces, they add, would result in low retention rates.

But the opposition camp is dwindling. Webb's bill was introduced in the House of Representatives on Thursday and already the measure has 170 cosponsors. Speaking with the Virginia Democrat on the conference call, several members urged McCain and the Bush administration to reconsidering their approach.

"We would love to have [Sen. McCain] join on to the bill and we would also be happy to have Senator Webb call him," said Ginny Brown-Waite, a Republican congresswoman from Florida. "And maybe all the members on the call could call Senator McCain about the bill."

In today's Los Angeles Times, John Soltz, the chair of VoteVets.org, and Gen. Wesley Clark both laid out the argument as to why Webb's bill was a no-brainer for McCain to support. Noting that falling military recruitment numbers were more of a threat to staffing of armed ranks than retention rates, they argued that it was "morally reprehensible to fix the system so that civilian life is unappealing to service members."

"Education assistance is not a handout, it is a sacred promise that we have made for generations in return for service," the others wrote. "McCain has said he hasn't had time to read the bill and isn't sure if he could support it. It's hard to believe that neither he nor anyone on his staff has had time to read such an important bill, which has been around since before he started running for president. But, even if true, McCain must do the right thing now, when his leadership is needed."