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A showdown Wednesday in the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee over improvements in GI Bill education benefits could hinge on whether the Veterans Affairs Department softens its opposition to changes that would have benefits differ by state and have schools — not veterans — receive monthly payments directly.
The committee, chaired by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, has 28 veterans' benefits bills on its agenda, but Senate aides said the measures certain to get most of the attention are two competing GI Bill proposals, S 22 and S 2938.
S 22 is the bipartisan 21st Century GI Bill of Rights, which has 57 Senate cosponsors and is endorsed by all major military and veterans' associations but is opposed by the Pentagon and VA.
S 2938, with the unwieldy name of The Enhancement of Recruitment, Retention and Readjustment Through Education Act, is a Republican alternative to S 22 that has 18 cosponsors, including one — Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. — who withdrew his support for S 22 to sign on with the other plan, which is endorsed by the Pentagon and VA.
At Wednesday's hearing, three major veterans' groups — the American Legion, AmVets and Paralyzed Veterans of America — are expected to endorse S 22, the benefits bill sponsored by Sen. James Webb, D-Va., over the Republican bill, sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Veterans' groups also are expected to directly contradict Defense Secretary Robert Gates' opposition to S 22 on the grounds that it would hurt the all-volunteer force by encouraging people to get out of the military.
In testimony provided before the hearing, veterans' groups said a better GI Bill would help the military with the serious recruiting problems that have led to an erosion of recruit quality, and would help the services attract high-quality people.
A key item of contention will be VA's concerns about administering S 22, which would make fundamental changes in how GI Bill payments are calculated and paid.
Because S 22 sets a maximum payment for every state — based on the highest costs for in-state tuition and fees at a four-year public college or university — the VA would have to survey every state to determine the benefits caps. S 2938 would continue the current practice of setting a single monthly benefit that applies to all full-time students.
Under both bills, basic GI Bill benefits, now $1,101 a month for those with at least three years of active service, would increase. S 2938 would raise the payment to $1,500 a month, while the average monthly payment under S 22 is expected to be about $1,700.
Another complication with S 22 is that it would have basic benefits paid directly to the school, while S 2938 continues the current practice of paying benefits to the service member or veteran, who is then responsible for paying the school.
Direct payments to schools was urged by Akaka, the veterans' committee chairman, as a way to reduce fraud and to avoid forcing veterans to pay full tuition to colleges at the start of a semester and then wait to be reimbursed later by VA.
Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, ranking Republican on the veterans' committee, is one of the chief cosponsors of S 2938, and is expected to stress problems with implementing S 22 during Wednesday's hearing.
VA officials have not said that they would be unable to implement the changes in S 22, just that doing so would take more time and administrative costs. Supporters of the Republican alternative had argued that since their benefits follow the current program, their increases could show up more quickly in veterans' pockets.
S 22 supporters have been in talks with VA, trying to overcome the administrative problems and reduce opposition. They need to get 60 votes in the Senate to overcome expected procedural roadblocks.
VA Secretary Dr. James Peake said in an April 30 letter that VA "does not now have a payment system or the appropriate number of training personnel to administer" S 22 and would need "significant additional general operation and information technology expenses" to accommodate the changes.
Peake's letter also raised the question of cost, estimating that S 22 has a $4.1 billion price tag for the first year and $74.2 billion over 10 years. He did not mention the possible cost of the Republican alternative.
While cost is a big factor, supports of both bills do not seem terribly concerned about that.
They envision attaching GI Bill improvements to a wartime supplemental funding bill that is expected to pass Congress in early June. They will argue that increasing GI bill benefits in wartime is a war-related expense, and could be applied to the national debt just like the estimated $12 billion monthly cost of U.S. military operations in Iraq.
Presidential politics are complicating work on improving the GI Bill. Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois are co-sponsors of Webb's bill, while Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona is a co-sponsor of Graham's bill.