Mideast edition, Friday, May 18, 2007

WASHINGTON — Military support groups on Wednesday hailed plans to expand military education benefits, VA home loans and small business grants for veterans under new legislation under consideration on Capitol Hill.

The measure was introduced in the Senate by presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and in the House by Iraq war veteran Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa. The lawmakers and their supporters said the Montgomery GI bill, passed in 1994, has been an invaluable tool but one that sorely needs updating.

“The aim isn’t just to get them to simply re-integrate into civilian society, but to give them the means to achieve positions of corporate, federal and private sector leadership,” said Dennis Cullinan, legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

“We’re not only doing the right thing for them, we’re doing the right thing for the nation by allowing our best and brightest to step forward.”

The new legislation would eliminate the current requirement that servicemembers pay into the GI Bill program to receive educational benefits. Instead, any active-duty member who has served two consecutive years since 2001 would be eligible to receive eight semesters of tuition, based on the national average for college costs.

Books, room and board, and other associated fees also would be covered. Reservists and Guardsmen who have served at least two years total on active duty since 2001 could see the same benefits.

Those proposals mirror several pieces of legislation already under consideration in the House and Senate. However, the new bill also would expand the Veterans Microloan Program, designed to help former servicemembers start small businesses, by raising the maximum loan from $25,000 to $100,000 and capping interest rates at 2.5 percent.

And on housing, the bill would eliminate a number of fees currently associated with the VA home loan program and raise the maximum loan from $417,000 to $625,000.

Clinton estimated the proposals will cost between $4 billion and $5 billion, but she called it an investment in those who have done an important service for the country.

“Patriotic men and women have answered the call of duty throughout our history; those who put down the plow, or the books, or the laptop, who left their families to wear the uniform,” Clinton said. “For too long, their sacrifice has not been matched by a national commitment on the part of our government.”

Murphy said when he tried to buy his first home in suburban Philadelphia, the VA loan was too restrictive and had too many fees, forcing him into a traditional loan without any military perks.

“This bill guarantees that we have done the right thing by our servicemen and women,” he said. “This will help the 21st-century veterans live the American dream, just like the Greatest Generation before them.”

No hearing schedule has been set on the legislation so far.

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