WASHINGTON — The "Post 9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act" sounds like the kind of rally-round-the-flag plan that John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton all could embrace.
Instead, it's become one of the starkest dividing lines between McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, and his likely Democratic opponent.
The bill, which the House of Representatives is expected to debate as soon as Thursday and the Senate could take up next week, would increase education aid to all military members who've served on active duty since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The House version has 294 co-sponsors; the Senate bill has 58.
Obama and Clinton are co-sponsors, and in West Virginia on Monday, Obama outlined the differences between himself and McCain. The Arizona Republican, said Obama, thinks the bill is "too generous. I could not disagree with him more."
McCain countered that the bill is misguided because it doesn't encourage soldiers to re-enlist.
Under the proposal, all veterans, including those who served in the National Guard or Reserve for at least 36 months since the attacks — not necessarily consecutively — could get full in-state tuition, regardless of cost, as well as some money for books, fees and a stipend for living expenses. Certain grants also could be provided for those who attend private colleges.
The program would replace the 23-year-old VA system, which provides about half the average cost of tuition.
Chief sponsor Sen. James Webb, D-Va., a highly decorated Marine in the Vietnam War, called the plan an easy vote.
The Pentagon, he said, has "done a very good job managing the career force. It's not done a good job in terms of helping people transition back into civilian life."
Obama agreed, saying the bill affords "a real chance to afford a college education." Backers of the bill maintain that the cost of college has soared in recent years, and the current benefit isn't sufficient.
McCain, a former Navy pilot and Vietnam POW, has joined Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and others to push an alternative that would make it easier to transfer education benefits to spouses and children and to provide more generous education benefits to personnel who serve for 12 years or more.
McCain's monthly education benefit, which would be available to any active-duty military personnel, regardless of when they began their service, would also rise to reflect increases in college costs.
The benefit would be based on the average cost of public colleges and universities across the country, which is $1,500 a month.
That sum, plus other government-sponsored grants, Graham maintains, would cover most, if not all, of the cost of college.
In addition, the McCain-Graham bill would provide $500 a year for books and supplies. And after 12 years in the military, the benefit would gradually rise to $2,000 a month by 2011 — a way of encouraging people to remain in the service.
Webb's plan has no such provision for longevity, though veterans would have up to 15 years after they leave active duty to use their benefit. Under Graham's plan, they'd have up to 10 years.
The transfer and longevity provisions, supporters argue, are crucial ways of encouraging people to stay in the military, and they have strong support from the Pentagon.
"Transferability supports military families, thereby enhancing retention," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a letter to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., recently.
The Webb bill, Gates suggested, wouldn't encourage retention.
"This is not World War II we're fighting. This is not Vietnam," Graham said. "This is a global struggle with an all-volunteer force. And anything we can do to help retain people, I think, would be great."
But that's the point, Webb argues: This isn't like past wars. He estimates that roughly three of every four Marines and Army personnel leave after a single four-year enlistment — the people, he says, who "answered the call" and should be rewarded.
Webb is at the forefront of a parade that includes not only the Democratic presidential candidates, but also a lot of key members of Congress and veterans' groups. Last month, they rallied in front of the Capitol, where backers wore buttons saying, "Leave No Veteran Behind."
"This legislation is wise," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "It has consensus. It brings us together in a bipartisan way."
Not so, said McCain. "There are fundamental differences," he said at the time.
KEY PROVISIONS OF THE BILLS:
The Graham-McCain bill:
_ As of October, education benefits for active-duty military personnel, regardless of when they began their service, would increase from the current $1,100 a month to $1,500 to cover the average cost of a four-year public college, plus $500 annually for books and supplies.
_ Benefits would increase gradually to $2,000 per month by 2011 for members on active duty for at least 12 years.
_ Education benefits for National Guard and Reserve members called to active duty since Sept. 11, 2001, would increase from $880 to $1,200 a month.
_ National Guard and Reserve members who've been in the Selected Reserve for 12 years or more and who continue to serve could receive as much as $1,600 a month by 2011.
_ Veterans could transfer education benefits to spouses and children. After six years of service, a member could transfer up to half of his or her benefits; after 12 years, he or she could transfer all of them.
The Webb bill:
_ All members of the military, including members of the National Guard and Reserves, who've served three to 36 months of active duty, not necessarily consecutively, beginning on or after Sept. 11, 2001, would be eligible for new education benefits.
_ They'd get "some amount of assistance proportional to their service for 36 months," which equals four academic years.
_ Veterans could receive benefits "up to the cost of the most expensive in-state public school, plus a monthly stipend equivalent to housing costs in their area." Some tutorial assistance and books would also be covered.
_ People whose service ended before Sept. 11, 2001, would remain covered under the current system.
To read more about Webb's bill: http://webb.senate.gov/pdf/factsheetgibill042508.pdf
To read more about Graham's bill: