Tuition assistance amendment a casualty of budget push

WASHINGTON — Hopes that lawmakers would save military tuition assistance programs as part of their upcoming budget bill were dashed late Monday when the Senate abandoned the proposal.

The push to restore tuition assistance programs had gained support among lawmakers in the chamber, but idea was scrapped when the Senate voted to move ahead on the budget measure without any amendments. Congress must pass a new measure funding federal operations before March 27 to prevent a government shutdown.

Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., a sponsor of the tuition assistance amendment, called its failure a disappointment.

“We owe it to the men and women in uniform — many of whom joined so they could further their education after protecting our country — to hold up our commitment to them,” she said in a statement. “It is unacceptable to attempt to balance the budget on the backs of our servicemembers.”

Earlier this month, officials from the Marine Corps, Army and Air Force stopped new enrollments to their respective tuition assistance programs, which had provided full reimbursement for the cost of college classes.

A statement sent to Stars and Stripes on Tuesday said the Navy is “working to see how we can maintain” tuition assistance for the greatest number of sailors.

Service officials blamed sequestration — $85 billion in mandatory agency spending cuts this year, half coming from the military — for the sudden funding change. Troops and veterans groups have complained the move could leave student servicemembers with incomplete degrees and formidable debt.

Meanwhile, the White House will have to answer public concerns about the end of the popular education benefit after a petition on its “We the People” web site reached the 100,000 signature threshold for public comment on Monday.

The petition calls for an executive order reinstating the tuition assistance funds and blocking the Pentagon from any future changes to the program.

The White House has not said when they will issue a response to the petition. Past responses have ranged from the absurd — a petition to build a Death Star easily reached the comment threshold — to in-depth commentary on the president’s gun control plans.

Last week, Pentagon spokesman George Little lamented the tuition assistance cuts but said military leaders were left with few alternatives.

“We are here because of sequestration,” he said. “If sequestration were averted, we may be facing a different set of choices.”

He said no budget decisions regarding tuition assistance for next fiscal year have been finalized, but added “we’re in a period of terrible budget uncertainty, and this is one of many programs we’re going to have to look at.

“We have to make some very tough decisions,” he said. “That’s the reality of it.”

Twitter: @LeoShane

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