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Congress considering bills that affect veterans' benefits, employment

WASHINGTON – Despite Congress’ early session focus on budget battles, lawmakers have introduced an ambitious slate of veterans-themed bills that could have far-reaching effects on post-military benefits and employment.

The most likely legislation to become law is the new Stolen Valor Act, introduced by Iraq war veteran Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nevada. The proposal would mandate a fine and up to a year in prison for anyone who claims military awards “with intent to obtain money, property or other tangible benefit.”

Last summer, the Supreme Court struck down the original Stolen Valor Act, saying the law was written too broadly and infringed on First Amendment rights. But the justices also said a more narrowly written bill would withstand constitutional scrutiny, and Heck said he believes the update language fits that requirement.

The legislation passed the House by a 410-3 vote last September and drew praise from the Senate, but the fiscal cliff confusion pushed aside efforts to finalize the measure. Heck said he expects the measure to be passed into law later this year.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, made new veterans unemployment legislation one of the first 10 bills to be introduced in that chamber, promising more emphasis and attention on the topic.

The Putting Our Veterans Back to Work Act would reauthorize a host of veterans training and employment services created by the 2011 Hire Heroes Act, one of only a few bills to draw broad bipartisan support over the last two years.

It would also establish new online resources for veterans seeking jobs, give contracting preference to firms with veteran employees, and allow federal officials to suspend contracts with companies who violate employment laws protecting guardsmen and reservists.

The measure also includes new education and training incentives, but a proposal from the House Veterans Affairs Committee could have a much greater impact on how veterans use their GI Bill benefits.

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This week, committee chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and ranking member Mike Michaud, D-Maine, introduced legislation to require all schools eligible for GI Bill education benefits to give veterans in-state tuition rates, regardless where they live.

“The men and women who served this nation did not just defend the citizens of their home states, but the citizens of all 50 states,” Miller said in a statement. “As such, the educational benefits they receive from the taxpayers should reflect that.”

The idea has been pushed by veterans groups in the past and was part of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. But it could meet resistance from education groups, who would have to make up the revenue difference in the lower tuition rates.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., former chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, reintroduced legislation this week to allow veterans with reproductive injuries to receive fertility treatment services through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The measure, which drew support from several lawmakers in both chambers last year, would also offer child care programs at veterans hospitals and VA centers, and mandate more outreach programs for female veterans.

Less likely to pass is a proposal from Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., which would guarantee military paychecks to continue in the event of a government shutdown.

White House officials earlier this month said that if the debt ceiling fight wasn’t resolved, many government benefits and payrolls – including active-duty paychecks and some veterans benefits – could be delayed because of a forced halt to all federal operations.

Hunter called those claims off-base and said they were distracting to troops serving overseas. He said legislators should ensure that political infighting doesn’t affect those paychecks.

But similar efforts to insulate military and veterans payouts from the Capitol Hill budget battles have failed in recent years. Leaders in the House and Senate have not had any serious conversations about making that change before the next set of budget fights next month.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @LeoShane

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