Obama, McCain misfire on vets benefits

SUMMARY: The Obama and McCain campaigns exchanged fire on veterans issues, and neither struck the truth.

An intense congressional debate over veterans benefits has been exported to the campaign trail with Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain accusing each other of shortchanging the interests of those who have volunteered to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither candidate has been very accurate about it.

Obama is highlighting McCain's resistance to a proposal that would 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. The plan, originally the subject of a bill by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a Vietnam veteran and former Navy secretary, has been bundled into a supplemental war spending bill.

"(McCain) is 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.

McCain, a decorated veteran who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam and is a long-serving member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, does indeed have serious reservations about the proposal's cost. It's not just the money' McCain also worries that the deal may be so attractive it will encourage retirements at a time when the services are having trouble recruiting.

But the Arizona senator is far from the only lawmaker voicing such concerns. He is one of 21 Republican senators who, with independent Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, lined up behind an alternative proposal by Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C. Graham's bill would increase a monthly military education stipend to $1,500 from the current $1,100. The sum would increase to $2,000 for individuals who complete at least 12 years of service.

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. The Graham alternative was defeated, but it attracted 42 votes in the Senate. 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." We rule Obama's statement Barely True.

McCain's camp, responding to the charge, says Obama has already proved he can be a cheapskate when it comes to veterans issues. Campaign officials point to Obama's May 24, 2007, vote against an emergency war spending bill for fiscal 2007 that, among other things, contained funding for veterans health care, including new trauma centers, counseling services, rehabilitation programs and prosthetic research.

"Obama himself voted against funding our nation's veterans and troops in the field during a time of war," McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said May 12.

Obama was one of 14 senators who voted against the measure, but not because of the health care spending. The bill had become highly contentious after Democrats who controlled majorities in both houses tried to attach a timetable for withdrawing troops to the measure. Party leaders first saw the provision as a way of challenging the Bush administration's war policies, but then removed the language in the face of staunch GOP opposition and because they feared President Bush would accuse them of not sending him a bill that he could sign quickly. Obama and some like-minded colleagues registered their displeasure with this capitulation by voting against the final version, saying they could not rubber-stamp an open-ended occupation.

Obama has, in fact, focused on improving military benefits, in one instance adding language to a defense bill that reversed a policy so that wounded servicemen undergoing recuperation and therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center would not get charged for their meals.

Because McCain's camp fails to put the Illinois senator's record in proper context, and depicts the vote against the 2007 war spending bill as an attempt to deny veterans health services instead of a broader statement on Bush's war policy, we judge his claim Mostly True.