Politics & Government

Republican senators revise their version of veterans education bill

WASHINGTON — Republican Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina cribbed a few details Wednesday from a Democratic colleague for their version of the GI Bill, which helps pay for college for military veterans.

But both men say their version is still superior to the one offered a year ago by Sen. James Webb, D-Va., which is wrapped inside the massive war supplemental package being considered in the Senate.

The pair, along with Sen. John McCain of Arizona, increased the annual payment for books to $1,000, allowed Guard and Reservists to more easily qualify for benefits and eliminated the $1,200 join-up fee for military members to participate in the program.

All match details of the Webb bill.

But in a news conference Wednesday, Burr and Graham said their bill would better help retention in the military. It allows military members to transfer half their college benefits to a spouse or child after six years, and 100 percent of the benefits after 12 years.

"I am not going to sit on the sidelines and under feel-good politics create a program that will hurt America's ability to retain its force," Graham said. "Now is not the time to put a benefit on the table that incentivizes people to leave the military."

Retention was a key issue for Defense Secretary Robert Gates when he cited his opposition to Webb's bill earlier this year. Gates worried that members of the military would get out in order to take advantage of the generous benefits.

Webb's bill, co-sponsored by a bipartisan majority of both the House and Senate, would allow veterans with three years of service to go to the most expensive in-state public college from their home state. They also would receive a housing stipend.

The legislation has been wrapped into the war supplemental package that could be voted on as early as Wednesday in the Senate, but President Bush has threatened to veto the package.

Bush said Tuesday he supports the McCain/Burr/Graham alternative.

Burr and Graham plan to bring their bill back up after the Memorial Day recess. The pair said they made the changes after listening to veterans groups.

Their bill increases monthly payments from about $1,100 a month to $1,500 a month. Burr said that is more equitable and easier to manage than a state-by-state system proposed by Webb.

Webb on Tuesday offered a free-standing amendment including transferability in his bill, but only as a two-year pilot program for certain military members re-enlisting in the service.