Senate Democrats, led by Virginia's Jim Webb, want the government to pay every penny of veterans' educational costs, from tuition at a public university to books, housing and a monthly stipend.
Such a benefit was a major feature of the historic 1944 G.I. Bill, which put more than eight million U.S. soldiers through college and is now credited by historians as fueling the expansion of America's middle class in the post-war era.
But in recent years the benefit has dwindled; under the current law, passed in 1985, veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan can expect Uncle Sam to cover only 75 percent of their tuition costs. That's not enough, say Democrats and veterans' advocates.
More than 450,000 used the benefit last year, at a cost to taxpayers of $2 billion, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which administers the program. The Democratic proposal would cost an additional $5.4 billion a year, the VA estimates -- and that's too much, it says.
Keith Wilson, the VA official who oversees the education benefits program, told senators last Friday the proposal would make "administration of this program cumbersome," and its costs would "tax existing VA resources."
But Democrats appeared unfazed. The current GI Bill is "woefully inadequate, given the service our military men and women have provided since [the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks]," said Webb, a combat veteran and former Navy secretary, who introduced the legislation that would expand the program. Webb's bill has 19 Democratic co-sponsors, including Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and John Kerry, D-Mass., a fellow veteran.
Patrick Campbell of the Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) endorsed Webb's plan. Better educational benefits are essential for attracting talented, ambitious recruits, he asserted.
"If the Department of Defense said, 'If you serve your country, we'll pay for school no questions asked,' ...[that] would increase the quality of our recruits," said Campbell, "instead of what we're doing now, which is lowering our standards."