WASHINGTON – The House on Thursday approved a new GI Bill, with a significant expansion of veterans’ education benefits, as part of a war-spending measure that will pay for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan into next year and also provide aid for the jobless.
The measure must be approved by the Senate, but its prospects brightened after House Democratic and Republican leaders and the White House reached agreement to head off another confrontation over the war and spending in a politically charged election year.
Its centerpiece is the popular modernization of the World War II-era GI Bill.
The new benefit would offer full tuition up to the cost of the most expensive in-state public university – plus stipends for books and housing – for post-Sept. 11, 2001, veterans who have served three years of active duty. It would allow service members to transfer educational benefits to their spouses or dependents.
“After tonight, in a bipartisan way … we can proudly say to our troops … that when they come home, we will say thank you by sending them to college,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
In a statement, the White House said that the legislation would “build upon the GI Bill’s historic legacy of ensuring brighter futures for service members and their families” and urged Congress to send it to President Bush swiftly.
The expanded veterans benefit emerged as an issue last month in the presidential campaign. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the presumptive Democratic nominee, assailed his expected Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, for opposing a bill sponsored by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a Vietnam veteran and former Navy secretary. McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, attacked Obama for challenging his support for the military.
McCain expressed concern that providing returning troops with a free college education after three years of active duty could spur departures at a time when the military is struggling to retain service members.
But the addition of a provision to allow service members to transfer benefits to spouses or children appeared to win over McCain, who said Thursday that it would encourage people to stay in the military.
The measure provides $162 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through early summer 2009, after a new president takes office.