The $52 billion 21st century G.I. Bill passed the Senate today. The bill, shepherded by Sens. Jim Webb, D-Vir., Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and John Warner, R-Vir., would provide the equivalent of tuition for the most expensive state college in a veteran’s state, give a stipend for living expenses, and award benefits on a sliding scale.
The bill passed the Senate 75-22.
The White House has expressed opposition to the bill because of concern that the benefits will lure soldiers and sailors into the civilian world and hurt military retention. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has expressed similar fears.
"I respect Sen. John McCain’s service to our country," Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, said as he spoke on the Senate floor of his support for the bill. "He is one of those heroes of which I speak. But I can’t understand why he would line up behind the president in opposition to this GI Bill. I can’t believe why he believes it is too generous to our veterans. I could not disagree with him and the president more on this issue. 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."
Former Navy flier McCain, who was on the campaign trail today and did not vote on the bill, was offended by the notion of Obama, who did not serve in the military, suggesting that he was "posturing" on the bill, or not wanting to be generous to his fellow veterans.
In a statement, the Vietnam War P.O.W. said he "will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did."
"It is typical, but no less offensive that Senator Obama uses the Senate floor to take cheap shots at an opponent and easy advantage of an issue he has less than zero understanding of," McCain said. "Let me say first in response to Senator Obama, running for President is different than serving as President. The office comes with responsibilities so serious that the occupant can’t always take the politically easy route without hurting the country he is sworn to defend. Unlike Senator Obama, my admiration, respect and deep gratitude for America’s veterans is something more than a convenient campaign pledge. I think I have earned the right to make that claim."
McCain outlined his family’s long history with the Navy, had some kind words for Webb, and explained his support his alternative bill, which he offered with Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, and Richard Burr, R-NC.
"Perhaps, if Senator Obama would take the time and trouble to understand this issue he would learn to debate an honest disagreement respectfully," McCain said. "But, as he always does, he prefers impugning the motives of his opponent, and exploiting a thoughtful difference of opinion to advance his own ambitions. If that is how he would behave as President, the country would regret his election."
Obama responded that it was "disappointing that Senator McCain and his campaign used this issue to launch yet another lengthy personal, political attack instead of debating an honest policy difference. He should know that this is not about John McCain or Barack Obama – it’s about giving our veterans a real chance to afford four years of college without harming retention. …These endless diatribes and schoolyard taunts from the McCain campaign do nothing to advance the debate about what matters to the American people."
NOTE: The title of this post, and the post, have been updated to give fuller context to both senators’ remarks.