Saturday, May 24, 2008

from Colonel Dan

May 23, 2008
Veterans' Benefits Bill Wins Approval in Senate

WASHINGTON - Twenty-five Republican senators broke with President Bush and
voted Thursday for a major expansion of veterans' benefits as part of a bill
to finance another year of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The proposal, adopted by a vote of 75 to 22, also provides money for
extended unemployment insurance benefits and other domestic programs to
which Mr. Bush has objected.

The size of the vote surprised Republican leaders, provided fresh evidence
of the president's lame-duck status and suggested that election-year
politics had fractured Republican unity.

While 25 Republicans supported the proposal, 22 opposed it. Forty-eight
Democrats and two independents voted for the bipartisan measure, drafted by
two Vietnam veterans, Senators Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia, and Chuck
Hagel, Republican of Nebraska.

The proposal on veterans' benefits was approved by a veto-proof majority,
with support from conservative Republican senators including Saxby Chambliss
of Georgia, James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma and John Thune of South Dakota.

The bill now goes back to the House, where its future course is somewhat
uncertain. The House had endorsed a similar expansion of education benefits
for veterans, but has also adopted policy measures to speed the withdrawal
of American troops from Iraq. The Senate rejected efforts to limit the
president's hand in Iraq.

Senators John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia, and Frank R. Lautenberg,
Democrat of New Jersey, said they were in the Senate today because of the
help they had received under an earlier G.I. Bill.

Mr. Hagel said the new legislation "fulfills the commitment that America
made in 1944, and has continued, to honor every generation of veterans since
World War II."

The White House and the Pentagon said they feared that the bill would
encourage men and women to leave the armed forces and enroll in college with
federal aid, at a time when the military already has difficulty retaining
troops to fight abroad.

But Mr. Webb and other supporters of the bill said the benefits would help
the armed forces recruit and retain personnel.

"There are no politics here," Mr. Webb said. "This is about taking care of
the people who have taken care of us."

Under the bill, veterans who have served in the armed forces for at least
three years since Sept. 11, 2001, could receive tuition assistance up to the
cost of attending the most expensive public college in their state, plus a
monthly housing stipend.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the new veterans benefits
would cost $52 billion in the next decade. The bill does not specify how the
cost would be met.

The bill won broad support with an assortment of domestic policy items,
including a moratorium on Bush administration rules that would cut Medicaid
payments to the states.

Governors of both parties oppose the rules, which would reduce federal
payments for public hospitals, teaching hospitals and services to the
disabled, among others. New York, which trains 15 percent of the nation's
doctors, would be particularly affected.

After the vote, Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said, "We
are one step closer to making sure these devastating regulations never see
the light of day."

The bill also includes money for housing and levees devastated by Hurricane
Katrina, heating subsidies for low-income families, the space shuttle
program, the Food and Drug Administration, biomedical research, roads and
bridges, federal prisons, grants to local police departments, aid to rural
schools, suppression of wildfires and preparations for the 2010 census.

The bill would extend unemployment benefits by 13 weeks nationwide, with an
additional 13 weeks for workers in states with high unemployment.

Congress also gave final approval on Thursday to a separate bill providing
more than $1.2 billion in tax relief to veterans and members of the armed
forces. The legislation includes tax cuts for members of the military who
are receiving combat pay, saving for retirement or buying homes. It would
help civilian employers keep jobs available for workers called to active
military duty.

Just before the Senate vote on veterans' benefits, President Bush, speaking
to soldiers at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, urged Congress to send him a
clean bill, free of extra domestic spending.

"Congress needs to pass a responsible war funding bill that does not tie the
hands of our commanders, and gives our troops everything they need to
complete and accomplish the mission," Mr. Bush said.

Jim Nussle, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget,
said the president would veto the measure because it included too much money
for domestic programs.

"It's disappointing and irresponsible that Congress has failed to complete
action on a bill that funds our troops prior to Memorial Day," Mr. Nussle
said. In linking domestic programs to war spending, he said, Congress is
pursuing a "cynical strategy."

But Senator Robert C. Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat who is chairman of
the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the administration's priorities
were bizarre.

"When it comes to Iraq, it appears that money is no object for President
Bush," Mr. Byrd said. "Yet when it comes to important priorities here at
home, he turns into Ebenezer Scrooge."

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