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WASHINGTON — A group of Republican senators including presidential candidate John McCain on Tuesday introduced legislation to boost college tuition payments for troops and to allow them to transfer the education benefits to their spouses and children.

The measure, designed as an alternative to a Democratic bill already under consideration, also includes larger payouts for troops who stay in the service for at least 12 years, an incentive sponsors added to help with recruiting and retention.

“We don’t think the GI Bill is broken, we don’t want to replace it,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “We just think it needs to be modernized.”

In February, Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., introduced more dramatic changes to the existing GI Bill benefits, promising free in-state tuition and a $1,000 monthly living stipend to all veterans.

That measure has since gained support from Democratic leaders and influential Republicans, such as Virginia’s Sen. John Warner. But Graham and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., criticized Webb’s proposal for being too complex and too expensive, topping $3 billion by some estimates.

The senators could not estimate the total cost of their proposal, but their plan would add a $500 yearly allotment for books instead of the larger monthly stipend.

It would also offer additional payouts of up to $3,000 to universities who eliminate veterans’ student loan debts upon graduation. And unlike the Webb bill, their legislation would allow active-duty troops with at least six years service to transfer 50 percent of their education benefit to a spouse or child, and transfer the full benefit to those dependents after 12 years.

Pentagon officials had proposed transferability of that tuition money to a limited number of high-demand specialties within the services, but Graham said the option should be available for all long-serving military personnel.

Still, Patrick Campbell, legislative director for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, called the new proposal one that benefits mainly the military, not the average servicemember.

The group has been a vocal supporter of the Webb bill, and Campbell said that proposal’s language tying tuition payouts to the most expensive in-state university’s costs is key to ensuring that future veterans will be able to afford college.

“Under (Graham’s bill), with the recent increases in college tuition, we’ll be facing the same problems again in a few years,” he said.

Burr said he hopes Senate leaders will consider the alternative education bill quickly, but no hearings have been scheduled on the issue.

The Senate Armed Services Committee next week will finalize its draft of the 2009 Defense Authorization bill, which could include elements of both education proposals.

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