WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans and Democrats have reached an initial agreement on the biggest expansion of college aid for military veterans in a decade, removing a 15-year time limit to tap into benefits and boosting money for thousands in the National Guard and Reserve.
The deal being announced early Thursday is a sweeping effort to fill coverage gaps in the post-9/11 GI Bill amid a rapidly changing job market. Building on major legislation passed in 2008 that guaranteed a full-ride scholarship to any in-state public university — or the cash amount for private college students similar to the value of a scholarship at a state college — the bill gives veterans added flexibility to enroll in college later in life. Veterans would get additional payments if they complete science, technology and engineering courses.
For a student attending a private university, the additional benefits to members of the Guard and Reserve could mean $2,300 a year more in tuition than they are receiving now, plus a larger housing allowance.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., lauded the bill as a major effort to modernize the GI Bill, better positioning veterans for jobs after their service in a technologically sophisticated U.S. military.
"It's really about training the workforce in a post-9/11 world," he told The Associated Press. "Veterans are being locked out of a whole new economy."
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the bill's lead sponsor, said he would schedule a committee vote next week.
Pledging more VA reforms to come, McCarthy said the full House will act quickly, describing the bill as just the "first phase to get the whole VA system working again."
"We'll move it out this month," McCarthy said.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said he would introduce a companion bill, while Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the panel's top Democrat, said he was "encouraged" by the bipartisan plan. Veterans' issues have been one of the few areas in which Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill have found some common ground, as they remain sharply divided on health care, tax reform and other issues.
The education benefits would take effect for enlistees who begin using their GI Bill money next year.
Kristofer Goldsmith, 31, says he believes it would benefit many former service members such as himself, who aren't ready to immediately enroll in college after military service. Goldsmith served in the U.S. Army as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2005, reaching the rank of sergeant, but returned home to constant nightmares and other post-traumatic stress symptoms. He was kicked out of the military with a general discharge after a suicide attempt, barring him from receiving GI benefits.
Now an assistant director for policy at Vietnam Veterans of America, Goldsmith advocates for veterans with PTSD and is appealing his discharge status. He's heading to Columbia University in the fall.
"I feel extremely lucky I have found my passion in veterans' advocacy," Goldsmith said. "But I've taken out tens of thousands of dollars to go to school. GI benefits are something service members earn while they serve. They shouldn't lose it just because they aren't transitioning back the way the government wants."
According to Student Veterans of America, only about half of the 200,000 service members who leave the military each year go on to enroll in a college, while surveys indicate that veterans often outperform peers in the classroom. The bill is backed by the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, which says hundreds of thousands of former service members stand to gain from the new array of benefits.
"This is going to be a big win," said Patrick Murray, associate director at VFW.
The legislation combines 18 separate House bills, also providing full GI Bill eligibility to Purple Heart recipients. Previously, those individuals had to serve at least three years. The bill also would restore benefits if a college closed in the middle of the semester, a protection added when thousands of veterans were hurt by the collapse of for-profit college giant ITT Tech.
The bill hasn't been free of controversy.
A draft plan circulated by Roe's committee in April drew fire after it initially proposed paying for the $3 billion cost of upgraded benefits over 10 years by reducing service members' monthly pay by $100 per month. Veterans' groups sharply criticized that plan as an unfair "tax on troops," noting that Army privates typically earn less than $1,500 per month.
"The GI Bill is a cost of war, and Congress needs to pay for it as long as we are at war," said Paul Rieckhoff, IAVA's founder and CEO.
The latest proposal would be paid for by bringing living stipend payments under the GI Bill down to a similar level as that received by an active-duty member, whose payments were reduced in 2014 by 1 percent a year for five years.
Total government spending on the GI bill is expected to be more than $100 billion over 10 years.
Rep. Tim Walz, top Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee and bill co-sponsor, praised the plan, saying it will "improve the lives of future generations of veterans ... without asking our troops or American taxpayers to pay more."