Defying Bush, Senate Bolsters War Funds Bill

The Senate votes to approve a war funding bill for Iraq and Afghanistan that would add extended unemployment benefits and expand the GI Bill for returning veterans. President Bush has threatened to veto any measure with the added spending, but there may be enough GOP support in Congress to override a veto.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The Senate defied President Bush today and approved a bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into 2009. The measure includes priorities beyond the battlefield, priorities such as expanded benefits for veterans and for the unemployed. The extra spending is what the White House opposes.

As NPR's Brian Naylor reports, there may be enough support from Senate Republicans to override a presidential veto.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Just hours after President Bush appeared before a friendly military audience at Fort Bragg and told Congress to approve a war funding bill without additional spending, the Senate sent a message back to the president. It passed two related measures, one going along and providing $165 billion funding the wars into next year, and the other a host of domestic programs that the president opposes. That one was approved 75 to 22, including the support of some two dozens Republicans. The key feature was a $52 billion expansion of the G.I. Bill, which would give returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan money to pay for four years at a public university. The measure drew the support of both Democratic presidential candidates.

Here's Senator Hillary Clinton.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): There are those opposing the support in legislation who have offered a half measure instead designed to provide the administration with political cover instead of a benefit to our veterans. That's not leadership, and it's not right. It's time we match our words with our actions.

NAYLOR: Among those opposed to the expanded G.I. Bill is the GOP's presumptive presidential nominee, John McCain, but he didn't appear in the Senate today. Democratic Senator Barack Obama did, calling McCain a hero, but...

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I can't understand why he would line up behind the president in his opposition to this G.I. Bill. I can't believe why he believes it is too generous to our veterans. I could not disagree with him and the president more on this issue. There are many issues that lend themselves to partisan posturing, but giving our veterans the chance to go to college should not be one of them.

NAYLOR: McCain believe the additional benefit is too expensive and would lead to soldiers opting out of the service to go to school. He supported a measure authored by South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham with a smaller benefit conditioned on spending more time in the Armed Forces.

Senator LINDSAY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): This is not World War II. This is not Vietnam. This is a global struggle being fought by a few. And we need to do two things: reward those who serve and decide to go back into civilian life, and tell those families and military members who will stay on for a career, God bless you, we're going to treat you differently than we've ever treated you before.

NAYLOR: But Republicans were blocked by Democrats from offering their alternative. Democratic Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, who wrote the measure that won today, stressed its bipartisan nature.

Senator JIM WEBB (Democrat, Virginia): There's no politics in this. This is taking care of the people who have taken care of us. And I'm really gratified by the vote today. We had 75 votes, and I will be even happier when we see this bill actually formally become a law.

NAYLOR: That won't be for a while. The Senate bill must go back to the House, which did not approve any money for the war, nor as much money for domestic spending. But today's vote on the eve of the Memorial Day weekend sends a clear message that Congress and the White House are headed for another bruising battle over spending.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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