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No Funds in Bush Budget For Troop-Benefits Plan

The Pentagon is still working out the potential costs, but it reports that about 77 percent of the 675,000 spouses of active-duty troops say they want or need to work and that they might take advantage of such a program.

The Army has a limited program that allows soldiers to transfer some of their education benefits to spouses or children, but it has several restrictions. For instance, only soldiers reenlisting in certain critical skill areas are eligible, and they are allowed to transfer only about half their benefits.

Retired Col. Robert Norton, deputy director for government relations at the Military Officers Association of America, said military families have been "clamoring" for an expansion of the GI Bill in recent years as a critical incentive for troops to stay in the service. He noted that the families endure much hardship and stress while following their spouses around the world or being separated for great lengths of time.

Most U.S. troops who use the GI program use only about half the education benefits, Norton said, and only a tiny percentage use all of their money, so the cost of allowing family members to participate in the program would probably be high. "There is likely to be a pretty hefty price tag," Norton said. "We think it's a good thing for military families. We would like to see the details."

The idea of allowing more troops to extend education benefits to family members has been percolating on Capitol Hill for some time. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.) has been pushing it for years and introduced a bill after Bush's surprise endorsement. His measure would drop the restrictions on how many benefits can be transferred and would allow members of the reserves and National Guard to participate.

In the Senate, Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) has introduced similar legislation. In an interview, she said that she hopes the White House will back her plan. "We ought to be able to get it pretty quickly through," she said. "It was their idea, and they ought to get credit for it."

The idea has bipartisan support. "It was a very pleasant surprise coming from an administration that has tried to balance its budgets on the backs of military families," said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who is co-sponsoring Bartlett's bill. "I don't know where they got the idea, but I am not going to quibble."

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