GI Twist

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

"THERE ARE many issues that lend themselves to partisan posturing, but giving our veterans the chance to go to college should not be one of them." So pronounced the Democrats' likely presidential nominee, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, on the floor of the Senate last week. This was a lovely sentiment, marred only by the fact that it came seconds after Mr. Obama's own partisan posturing. Mr. Obama duly hailed his Republican opponent, Arizona Sen. John McCain, as a war hero, then launched a one-two punch, linking Mr. McCain to an unpopular president and painting him as stingy toward those who served their country.

Referring to Mr. McCain, Mr. Obama said, "I cannot understand why he would line up behind the president in his opposition to this GI Bill [or] why he believes it is too generous to our veterans."

For his part, Mr. McCain rose -- or sunk, perhaps -- to Mr. Obama's bait, retorting that he would not take "any lectures" from someone "who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform." The dispute between the two men is over a measure that we, like Mr. Obama, have supported, and that last week overwhelmingly passed the Senate as part of an emergency war spending bill. The proposal, by Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), would expand the current GI Bill to ensure full college scholarships for veterans who spend three years or more in the armed forces. As we have said, the current system has not kept pace with rising college costs and has shortchanged veterans who have endured the rigors of wartime service.

That does not mean that the measure is perfect or that the concerns expressed by the Pentagon and other critics, including Mr.

McCain, should be brushed off as illegitimate or insensitive to veterans. The Pentagon argues that the measure would harm the military by providing too large an incentive for people to leave. The projected increase in departures would be offset by an increase in recruitment among those attracted by the new, improved benefit; however, that does not account for the loss of experience and added training costs. Mr. McCain and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) have proposed an alternative that concentrates on giving those who remain in the service added educational benefits, including the ability to transfer their benefits to family members; the measure would also boost benefits for veterans, although far less than the Webb bill would.

The fact that Mr. Webb's bill was co-sponsored by Republicans such as Sens. John W. Warner (Va.), the ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, and Chuck

Hagel (Neb.), a former deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration, adds to its credibility. But as Mr. McCain pointed out, "It would be easier, much easier, politically for me to have joined Sen. Webb in offering his legislation." Tempting as it may be, his

decision not to do so should not, as Mr. Obama suggests, be the occasion for partisan posturing.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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