WASHINGTON — Supporters of a bill to overhaul veterans’ education benefits are confident they can pass the legislation this year, even after the secretary of defense voiced his opposition to the measure Tuesday.

The legislation, introduced by Sens. Jim Webb, D-Va., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., would promise full four-year tuition at state universities plus a $1,000 monthly living stipend for all active-duty troops following their military service.

So far, 58 senators and more than 250 representatives have signed on as co-sponsors of the GI Bill legislation, and on Tuesday more than 300 lawmakers and veterans rallied outside the Capitol to gather additional support for the education benefits.

Both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., spoke at the rally about the importance of better education benefits for returning troops, but neither offered no estimate for when the bill might be put up for a vote.

Webb said the measure could be attached to the 2009 Defense Authorization Bill or the upcoming supplemental budget, but so far no promises have been made to him.

“But we feel pretty good we can get this done this year,” he said. “We have a lot of support, and we’re very close to pulling this off.”

He dismissed concerns about another GI Bill overhaul proposed by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., saying it falls short of what veterans need and expect.

The rival legislation would provide $14,000 to $18,000 a year for in-state tuition and a $500 yearly books stipend, less than the payouts under the Webb-Hagel measure. But Graham also expects the total cost of his overhaul will be significantly less than the more than $3 billion the full-tuition coverage is estimated to cost.

On Tuesday, Graham’s office released a letter from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates opposing the Webb-Hagel bill, saying it would undercut retention efforts and ignores department efforts to allow transferring of education benefits from troops to spouses and children.

In addition, President Bush on Tuesday promised to work with Congress on improving veterans benefits, highlighting administration-backed initiatives over the Webb-Hagel proposal, but reiterated plans to veto any supplemental budget bill which includes noncombat items.

But the measure has gained support from several prominent Republicans, including Sen. John Warner, R-Va., who spoke at the Capitol event about the importance of the GI Bill scholarship in his own career.

“We’re going to lead this fight and we’re going to win it,” he said, eliciting cheers from the assembled veterans.

The measure is also backed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Military Officers Association of America, the Vietnam Veterans of American, the American Council on Education and two dozen other national groups.

Derek Blumke, president of Student Veterans of America, said most troops believe that their GI bill benefits will cover most of their postservice college expenses, but few actually graduate without significant student loan debt.

“The current benefit is a complete failure,” he said. “Our senators and congressmen have not yet carried out the will of the people.”

What’s at stake?If passed, the proposed legislation would give active-duty veterans the following benefits after they have completed their military service:

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now