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Seizing on an intensifying congressional debate over veterans benefits, Sen. Barack Obama is accusing Sen. John McCain of shortchanging individuals who volunteered to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan by resisting an effort to expand educational aid for ex-service members.
At issue is a proposal to give veterans educational benefits equal to the highest tuition rates of a public college or university in their state, as well as a monthly housing stipend determined by geographical area. Originally the subject of a standalone bill by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., the plan has been bundled by Democratic leaders into an emergency war spending bill for fiscal 2008 and 2009 that now is under consideration in the House.
The proposal resonated with lawmakers eager to demonstrate continued support for active duty troops and veterans, but posed a quandary for fiscal conservatives concerned about ever higher costs as more individuals leave active duty.
McCain, echoing Bush administration objections, says the proposed benefit is so generous that it could actually encourage service members to leave the military as soon as they qualify, thereby undercutting recruitment and retention efforts. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, provided some ammunition for this line of argument in an analysis for Senate Budget Committee Republicans released on May 8, estimating the plan would increase direct spending by $51.8-billion through 2018.
Obama, however, maintains it's important to provide robust levels of aid to returning service members at a time when rising tuition is pricing thousands of Americans out of a college education. And he's depicting McCain as a stubborn holdout, willing to turn his back on veterans to uphold his fiscally conservative principles.
"I have great respect for John McCain's service to this country … but he's one of the few senators of either party who oppose this bill because he thinks it's too generous," Obama said in a May 12 speech in Charleston, W.Va.
As we write this, negotiations continue on Capitol Hill to find a version of the bill that will be palatable to all sides. But we don't need to follow the ups and downs of the legislative efforts to effectively judge the accuracy of Obama's remarks on the original bill.
Obama says McCain is "one of the few" senators who considered that original legislation to be too generous. In doing so, Obama neglects to mention that McCain is one of 21 Republicans who, with independent Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, lined up behind an alternative proposal by Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., that would expand the government's Montgomery G.I. Bill program by increasing a monthly education stipend to $1,500 from the current $1,100 maximum. The stipend for individuals who complete at least 12 years of service would rise to $2,000. Graham's plan offered other benefits, as well, though it did not guarantee money for a full college education.
The Graham plan was defeated, but 42 senators voted for it. That, on top of the fact that 21 other senators were early proponents of the cheaper alternatives puts McCain in the company of more than "a few." With that in mind, we conclude that Obama's description of McCain as some kind of rare dissenter in discussions to improve education benefits for veterans to be Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.
McCain Press Release, "Senators McCain, Graham and Burr Express Concern Over Bill That Could Harm Reenlistment Rates," May 9, 2008
Congressional Budget Office, "Preliminary Estimate of Cost for S 22" May 8, 2008
CQ Today, "Blue Dogs Force Delay of War Bill," by Josh Rogan and David Clarke, May 7, 2008
New York Times "Congress Weighs Veterans Adjustment Aid," by Carl Hulse, May 7, 2008
Obama press release, "Obama Votes to Demand Changed Course in Iraq," May 24, 2007
CQ Today, "Democrats Abandon War Deadline," by Liriel Higa and Josh Rogan, May 22, 2007
CQ Weekly, "Search for a Supplemental Compromise," by David Clarke, May 7, 2007
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