House deal would boost college aid for veterans; biggest expansion in a decade

WASHINGTON  — A bipartisan congressional agreement on the biggest expansion of college aid for military veterans in a decade would remove a 15-year time limit to tap into benefits and increase money for thousands in the National Guard and Reserve.

The House deal expected to be announced later Thursday is an effort to fill coverage gaps in the post-9/11 GI Bill amid a rapidly changing job market. The plan builds on legislation from 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 new plan would give veterans added flexibility to enroll in college later in life, and veterans would get additional payments if they completed science, technology and engineering courses, according to details obtained by The Associated Press before the bill's public release.

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 bigger housing allowance.

The American Legion, the nation's largest veterans' group, said the plan would mean a "new era" for those who served in uniform.

"Years from now, veterans who were unable to attend institutions of higher learning during their military service or immediately afterward will be able to earn degrees and begin rewarding careers that can lead our economy," said Charles E. Schmidt, national commander of the American Legion.

The group drafted the original GI Bill of Rights in 1944 that created the comprehensive education benefit for World War II and future veterans.

The bill's lead sponsor is Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee. He said he would schedule a committee vote next week. The No. 2 House leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said the House would act quickly to help veterans.

"We'll move it out this month," McCarthy told the AP.

A similar bill is expected from GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. The committee's top Democrat, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, said he was encouraged by the bipartisan plan.

Veterans' issues have been one of the few areas where Republicans and Democrats have found some common ground, unlike on health care, taxes and other issues.

The education benefits would take effect for enlistees who begin using their GI Bill money next year.

Kristofer Goldsmith, 31, said he believes it would help many former service members who, like him, aren't ready to immediately enroll in college after their service.

Goldsmith was in the Army as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2005, reaching the rank of sergeant. He returned home to constant nightmares and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. 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.

Veterans of Foreign Wars estimates that hundreds of thousands of veterans stand to gain from the new benefits.

The House legislation also would provide full GI Bill eligibility to Purple Heart recipients. Previously, they had to serve at least three years. The bill 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 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 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.

Congress is trying to address a $1 billion shortfall in the Department of Veterans Affairs Choice program of private-sector care that would threaten medical care for thousands of veterans beginning next month.

Acknowledging poor planning, VA Secretary David Shulkin has said the department may need emergency money. Lawmakers are working to provide additional money for 2017 but are in disagreement over whether to address other underfunded areas of the VA.

On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a $6 billion increase in 2018 for the VA and construction projects at military facilities, turning away a Democratic amendment to tack on another $1.6 billion to address the ongoing Choice shortfall. Republicans cited a need to reach agreement first on increasing the nation's borrowing authority and lifting budget "caps" before making commitments.