New York Times: House Approves Veterans’ Education Aid in a Deal on War Spending
By CARL HULSE
WASHINGTON — The House voted on Thursday to offer what amounts to a free college education to the new generation of military veterans as part of a costly legislative package that finances the war in Iraq through the end of President Bush’s tenure and into the early months of the next administration.
In allowing approval of about $162 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Democrats essentially stopped trying to use Pentagon spending as a tool to force Mr. Bush to withdraw combat troops or impose other conditions on his handling of the war.
“The president simply will not sign such legislation,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi, an opponent of the war. “Our troops are in harm’s way. They need to be taken care of.”
Under an arrangement that allowed separate votes on the war money and a series of domestic initiatives, the war money was approved 268 to 155, with mainly Republicans backing it. Ms. Pelosi and 150 other Democrats opposed the unrestricted war money.
A separate package of domestic initiatives including the new G.I. benefits, a 13-week extension of unemployment aid for millions of Americans and $2.6 billion for Midwestern flood relief was approved 416 to 12.
The overall measure included $186.5 billion in spending along with the estimated $8 billion costs of the unemployment benefits and almost $63 billion for the college aid for veterans over the next decade.
Frustrated in their efforts to win a troop pullout, Democrats pushed the plan to grant military personnel new rewards once they leave the service, advocating a substantial expansion of college aid for those who have experienced “especially arduous” duty in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Under the program, those who serve at least three years on active duty will qualify for educational assistance equivalent to tuition and fees at a leading public university in their state along with housing assistance, money for books, school supplies and tutorial assistance.
At the request of the administration, which initially opposed the veterans’ plan, the bill would also allow those who serve longer in the military to transfer unused education aid to immediate family members: a provision that added about $10 billion to the estimated costs.
“This legislation will build upon the G.I. Bill’s historic legacy of ensuring brighter futures for service members and their families,” the White House said in a statement. “We urge both the House and Senate to immediately pass this bipartisan agreement.”
The deal, fashioned quickly Wednesday by House leaders with White House support, must still be approved by the Senate, which will consider it next week. Senators in both parties said initial indications were that most of their colleagues were prepared to back it even though some spending initiatives they favored had been dropped.
The bill includes $5.8 billion for levee construction in Louisiana, $210 million to cover additional costs for the 2010 census, $400 million for science programs and about $10 billion for foreign aid programs. The costs, coming at the time of a mounting federal deficit, drew objections from fiscal conservatives in both parties, particularly since the veterans’ program was not paid for.
In allocating enough money to continue the war into the summer of 2009, Republicans and Democrats showed they were eager to dispose of the politically charged issue before the November elections.
The money will also give the next president time to settle into office before being confronted with the financing issue.
But some Democrats were clearly disappointed that they had come up short in repeated efforts to force a troop withdrawal. “For me this is one compromise too many, one cave-in too many,” said Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts.
Other Democrats feared a backlash from voters who supported Democrats in 2006 in hopes of ending the war. “I am concerned that some people out there might be angry,” said Representative José E. Serrano, Democrat of New York.
Ms. Pelosi said House Democrats had done what they could. She blamed Senate Republicans for thwarting the anti-war push, saying that most Republicans stood solidly with Mr. Bush and denied Democrats the 60 votes needed to overcome filibusters.
“The 60-vote requirement to bring up legislation in the Senate has prolonged this war,” said Ms. Pelosi, who called the result a tragedy.
Republicans said that improving conditions in Iraq validated their decision to back the president in continuing the war. “Unilateral defeat, unilateral surrender, which is what the Democrats have wanted, will leave us with an unstable Iraq, a place where Al Qaeda would have had free access and a base of operations,” said Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader.
He and fellow Republicans came to the negotiating table in response to growing unease in the party ranks over being seen as blocking added jobless aid when economic anxiety is running high back home. Dozens of Republicans joined House Democrats last week in backing the unemployment money in a separate bill and the veterans’ plan had broad support as well.
While conceding the inability to set a withdrawal date, Democrats said they had won significant concessions in the bill, noting that Mr. Bush had not only initially opposed the veterans’ education plan, but also faulted the extension of unemployment benefits and vowed to oppose additional domestic spending.