So what does it say about Washington that two such men, with so much in common, are locked in an increasingly intense debate over a shared value: education benefits for veterans?
“It’s very odd,” said former Nebraska Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey, a mutual friend. And that oddness gets greater by the day as the two headstrong senators barrel down colliding tracks.
An Arizona Republican, McCain has all but locked up the Republican presidential nomination and is preparing for a fall campaign in which his support of the Iraq war is sure to be a major issue. Yet the former Navy pilot and Vietnam POW makes himself a target by refusing to endorse Webb’s new GI education bill and instead signing on to a Republican alternative that focuses more on career soldiers than on the great majority who leave after their first four years.
Undaunted, Webb, who was a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam, is closing in on the bipartisan support needed to overcome procedural hurdles in the Senate, where the cost of his package — estimated now at about $52 billion over 10 years — is sure to be an issue. But McCain’s support would seal the deal like nothing else, and the new Republican bill, together with a letter of opposition Tuesday from Defense Secretary Robert Gates, threatens to peel off support before the Democrat gets to the crucial threshold of 60 votes.
“There are fundamental differences,” McCain told Politico. “He creates a new bureaucracy and new rules. His bill offers the same benefits whether you stay three years or longer. We want to have a sliding scale to increase retention. I haven’t been in Washington, but my staff there said that his has not been eager to negotiate.”
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“He’s so full of it,” Webb said in response. “I have personally talked to John three times. I made a personal call to [McCain aide] Mark Salter months ago asking that they look at this.”
“Hell, no,” Webb bristled when asked if there had been an implicit message that he would attack McCain if he didn’t come on board.
"John McCain has been a longtime friend of mine, and I think if John sat down and examined what was in this bill, he would co-sponsor it,” Webb said. “I don’t want this to become a political issue. I want to get a bill done.”
The debate will soon come to a head when Congress takes up the administration’s request for new emergency funding for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The current plan is for the House to take up a 2008 military construction and Veterans Affairs appropriations measure, strike its content and then layer in a series of three amendments that would include not only war funding but also very likely the Webb bill.
Mindful of this, the Gates letter represents a first shot by the Bush administration. Even as it went out Tuesday morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) attended a noon rally on the Capitol steps to support the Webb package.
McCain’s name never came up directly, but his old pal Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) joined with Webb. McCain’s absence fed into ongoing efforts by the Democratic National Committee to drive a wedge between the Republican and his supporters among veterans. “It’s two birds with one stone,” said a Democratic aide.
“We have a lot of issues to debate in the campaig this year, but this really should not be one of them,” Webb told the Senate last week, in a warning to McCain.
“I don’t think Jim Webb is seeking political advantage,” McCain said. “He’s sincerely dedicated to improving education benefits.”
But McCain’s camp has its back up and complains of being bullied by what it says are Webb’s demands to “sign on” to the bill without being given the needed time — and, some would say, due deference — to make changes. The Gates letter, sent to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), echoes many of McCain’s arguments, and beyond politics, the fight underscores a real policy divide over how the nation views its professional military.
Iraq has been the most prolonged conflict for that military since the all-volunteer force was created after Vietnam. And while Gates, like McCain, focuses first on those willing to re-enlist for longer service, Webb believes the nation owes a debt to those who rotate out after one enlistment, which can often include multiple tours in Iraq.
“I’ve been doing veterans law for 30 years. The GI bill is designed as a readjustment benefit for people who leave the military,” Webb said. For the Marines and the Army — which account for the brunt of the fighting — he estimates as many as 70 percent to 75 percent rotate out after a single four-year enlistment.
Webb’s new GI education benefits would apply, then, to anyone who has served up to 36 months of qualified active duty beginning at the same time as or after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “These are the people who answered the call,” Webb said at the rally Tuesday. “These are the people who moved willingly forward toward the sound of the guns.”
In private life, Webb is known as an officer who kept in touch with the enlisted Marines who served under him in Vietnam. And his rhetoric is a throwback to another era, when military service was seen less as an ongoing career than something undertaken for a shorter period, whether defined by the draft or enlistment during a war.
By contrast, Gates wrote in his letter that “our first objective is to strengthen the All-Volunteer Force” and “re-enlistments (and longer service) are critical to the success of the All-Volunteer Force.” From this vantage point, a too-generous GI Bill is counterproductive, and the defense secretary warns that “serious retention issues could arise” if the benefit were extended above the average costs for a public four-year college.
The Webb bill shoots higher, promising payments up to the cost of more expensive state schools plus a monthly housing stipend equivalent to costs in the same area. The government could even match, dollar for dollar, any contribution a private college might make, if its tuition is more than that of the state schools.
This creates a new, more complex, multi-tiered system, which critics contend would be an administrative nightmare. By contrast, the Republican alternative backed by McCain seeks to build on the current benefits system dating back to 1985. All levels would be increased but not to the degree of Webb’s bill; the greatest benefits — including the ability of career noncommissioned officers to transfer their benefits to their children — would be extended to those who remained at least six years.
Warner, for one, is skeptical of the retention argument against the Webb bill. “I think this argument that it’s going to hurt retention is very thin and tenuous, very thin and tenuous,” said the former chairman. “The flip side of that is, putting a big piece of cheese out there will induce more qualified people to join just to get this. It should be a tremendous incentive for recruitment.”
“This happens in Washington. You have cometing proposals side by side,” said McCain. “We need to increase benefits. We share that same goal completely.”