New G.I. Bill Proposes 'Patriot Tax'

Congressional Democrats are pushing forward with plans for a new G.I. Bill to give veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan money to go to college for four years. House Democrats want to pay for it with what they've dubbed a "patriot tax" on people earning more than $500,000. In the Senate, one Republican who notably isn't on board is John McCain, a Vietnam veteran who says the proposal is too expensive and could encourage service members to leave the military.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

On Capitol Hill, the annual fight over war spending has ramped up again. Today was a day of partisan maneuvers. The House voted to cut off funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then it sent the matter over to the Senate where those funds are expected to be restored. The war proposal also includes money for domestic programs, and the House approved those. The measure would extend unemployment benefits and expand the G.I. Bill. And today we're focusing on the G.I. Bill. It would pay for returning veterans to attend a four-year public university. The Senate is considering something similar and it has bipartisan support, but the measure has one particularly high-profile opponent, Vietnam veteran and presumptive GOP presidential nominee John McCain.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRAIN NAYLOR: The battle over expanded G.I. benefits finds two Naval Academy graduates who were wounded at Vietnam and who now have sons on active duty on opposite sides. One is McCain, the other is Democratic Senator James Webb of Virginia, who wrote the measure. On the Senate floor yesterday Webb said his proposal would do for this generation of veterans what the original G.I. Bill did for those who fought in World War II.

Senator JAMES WEBB (Democratic, West Virginia): This is a strongly bipartisan bill. It's an attempt to give those people who served, have served since 9/11, equitable opportunities for the future, on a level of the people that we have come to call the Greatest Generation, the World War II veterans. That's all this is.

NAYLOR: Among the bill's GOP supporters in the Senate are Virginia Republican John Warner, who served in World War II in Korea and who benefited from the original G.I. Bill, and Vietnam veteran Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

Senator CHUCK HAGEL (Republican, Nebraska): What this bill is about as much as any one thing, Madam President, is supporting our troops in a time of peace, just as we support our troops in a time of war.

NAYLOR: The benefit would provide Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with money to pay for four years at the most expensive public college or university in their state, plus a stipend for books. It's estimated to cost some $51 billion over 10 years. The cost, plus a concern that the measure would encourage military members to leave the armed forces after their three years stints to go college, has led most Republicans to oppose it. McCain and his allies want a bill with less generous benefits, one which they say will not encourage service members to leave the military so soon. South Carolina's Republican Lindsey Graham.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Unless we started drafting people, which nobody appears to want, including me, we need to let those who serve and continue to serve know how much we appreciate what their doing and give them incentives to stay around.

NAYLOR: The Senate fight over G.I. benefits is likely to play out next week. The House, meanwhile, passed its version of the G.I. Bill, but in an unexpected twist rejected the war funding measure. Most but not all Democrats in the House oppose funding the war, but Republicans have always provided the votes needed to pass the bill. Today, however, they voted "present" in a show of protest over the bill's others provisions. Democrat David Obey of Wisconsin said afterwards Republicans are worried after a string of defeats in special elections.

Representative DAVID OBEY (Democratic, Wisconsin): What happen is that they got panicked by three elections in a row and had 132 Republicans go AWOL on the White House.

NAYLOR: The Senate, however, is likely to restore the war funding when it votes next week.

Brain Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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