WASHINGTON — Pentagon officials would have to reinstate military tuition assistance programs under a measure passed by the Senate Wednesday afternoon.
The plan, approved by a voice vote, was inserted into the Senate’s plan to fund federal programs through the end of this fiscal year and must still be approved by the House before it can be signed into law.
But the move marks a dramatic turnaround from earlier this week, when the push in Congress to save the tuition assistance programs appeared dead.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., sponsor of the measure, said numerous troops he has spoken with were dismayed over service officials’ decision to end the education benefit, and he questioned whether the move was more politics than financial need.
Earlier this month, officials from the Marine Corps, Army and Air Force stopped new enrollments to their respective tuition assistance programs. Each had previously provided $250 per semester credit hour and up to $4,500 a year to servicemembers pursuing college degrees.
Service officials blamed sequestration — $85 billion in mandatory agency spending cuts this year, half coming from the military — for the sudden funding change.
But veterans advocates and lawmakers lamented the change as short-sighted and potentially devastating to student servicemembers midway through a degree program.
Under the proposed amendment, military officials could cut tuition assistance programs for the remainder of the fiscal year, but only by the amount mandated under sequestration — about 8 percent. It would effectively undo the services’ plans to zero out the program and use the savings elsewhere.
If the House agrees with the amendment, the funding and number of applicants eligible for tuition assistance programs could drop, but tens of thousands of troops will still be able to continue their classes without finding new ways to pay for tuition.
Roughly 300,000 servicemembers used the military tuition assistance programs last year.
Earlier on Wednesday, a trio of Republican House lawmakers introduced stand-alone legislation to restore the military tuition assistance programs, arguing that the money saved by cutting the benefit wasn’t significant enough to justify the hardship to troops.
House and Senate lawmakers are expected to begin crafting compromise language on the budget bill later this week. Congress has until March 27 to pass a budget bill funding federal operations for the next six months if lawmakers want to avoid a government shutdown.