Senate Republicans who support the war in Iraq have sweetened their plan to enhance the Montgomery GI Bill education benefit in the hope of winning the support of more veterans groups and blocking enactment of a new, more costly GI Bill from Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.).

These Republicans, led by Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), John McCain (Ariz.) and Richard Burr (N.C.), agree with defense officials that the Webb plan would entice too many servicemembers to leave after completing their initial service obligations, driving down retention rates in wartime.

The Webb plan, which the House passed in mid-May and the Senate OK’d Thursday, has been favored by most veterans groups because it would pay full tuition and fees at the most expensive state schools, provide a new monthly stipend tied to local housing costs, and would give Reserve and Guard members who have served lengthy deployments since 9/11 access to the same GI Bill benefits.

The Graham plan would enhance Montgomery GI Bill benefits rather than establish a new GI Bill for post-9/11 veterans. But benefits would not match the Webb bill. Graham’s key feature is to give the services authority to allow transfer of up to 18 months of unused education benefits to spouses or children if members serve at least six years. Monthly payments and the transferability feature would be enhanced for service beyond 12 years.

Webb and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), an original co-sponsor of the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, announced Tuesday that they would back a new amendment from Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) to allow testing of a transferability option for their new-era GI Bill.

The next day, Graham and Burr unveiled far more ambitious changes to their own bill, heeding some feedback from veterans’ groups. Graham now wants to drop the $1,200 MGIB enrollment fee and to adjust benefits each year based on rising education costs rather than inflation overall. Also, a $500 annual stipend for books would be raised to $1,000.

These changes boost the cost of Graham’s bill to $38 billion over 10 years, up $4 billion from his earlier plan. He and Burr propose paying for their bill by cutting all federal discretionary spending, except for defense programs, by up to 0.5 percent a year. The House voted to pay for the Webb bill by raising taxes by 0.47 percent on income above $500,000 a year for individuals and above $1 million for couples. Graham said the flaw of this plan is that it would hammer small business owners.

Hagel, in an interview, said the trouble with Graham’s MGIB reform package is that education benefits are used as a retention tool. They should be regarded as promised benefits to a new generation of warriors, he said.

"This is an argument about doing what the American people have committed to do" in every past war: "provide an earned [education] benefit for those men and women who serve their country," Hagel said.

At a press conference announcing changes to his bill, Graham dismissed the notion that, as Republican and Democratic plans move closer to embracing the same features, the fight shifts to who gets credit for GI Bill reform this election year by having their name on the new law.

"Well, you know, I’ll call this the Webb GI Bill," Graham said of his revised legislation. "I appreciate what he’s done by putting the idea on the table of modernizing benefits." But Webb’s actual bill remains "a $52 billion package that incentivizes people to leave the military at a time when we need to put money on the table to keep them around," Graham said.

Graham said cited his experience as a "career military officer," in the Air Force and Air Force Reserve, as giving him a better understanding of the importance of retaining competent noncommissioned officers. Webb, meanwhile, is focused "on making sure people who’ve served three years and leave are better treated … at the expense of those who stay around."

Hagel said he was "stunned" by data Webb introduced during floor debate showing that the Army loses 75 percent of soldiers during or immediately after they complete their first enlistment. Seventy percent of Marine recruits too are gone after a first tour. That suggests to Hagel and Webb that critics are exaggerating the importance of retention while they would allow most veterans to leave without proper education benefits.

Today’s volunteers, Hagel said, deserve "what I got coming back from Vietnam, what Warner got coming back from World War II and what [Rep.] Charlie Rangel [D-N.Y.] got coming back from Korea."

Graham’s plan to pay for his MGIB revisions by cutting nondefense spending by 0.5 percent across the board is "a charade," Hagel said. "That’s not going to happen; everybody knows it."

Graham and colleagues, Hagel said, should accept the fact that an improved GI Bill is another cost of war.

"I don’t see Lindsey Graham or John McCain or Richard Burr or the president of the United States going to the Congress and asking for offsets for the $3 billion a week we spend in Iraq," Hagel said. "If it’s critical that we produce money to fund the war, with no regard for how we’re going to pay for it," it’s should be critical to provide a decent GI Bill "to the poor guy at the bottom who always has to take the hill."

Bush has threatened to veto the emergency war supplemental if funds are added that are not needed for wartime operations. Hagel said the House appears to have enough votes to override a veto and to fund GI Bill reform in the supplemental. Sixty-seven votes are needed in the Senate, however, and Hagel isn’t sure Webb will have them. But two Republicans not among the bill’s 58 co-sponsors told Hagel they will vote to override.

"So that gets us to 60," Hagel said, adding, "We’ll have the votes."

To comment, e-mail, write to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA 20120-1111 or visit:

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