John McCain may have to find an open seat on the "Straight Talk Express" for Virginia Sen. Jim Webb. Today, a Politico article by David Rogers documented the openly contentious debate that has developed between Webb and McCain over Webb's proposed G.I. bill.
Discussing why he favors a G.I. benefits bill introduced by Republicans as opposed to Webb's measure, McCain told the Politico that "there are fundamental differences. [Webb's bill] 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."
Webb, never one to mince words, replied, "He's so full of it. 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."
This isn't the first time Webb has spoken his mind so bluntly. In 2006, soon after being elected to the Senate, Webb had a testy exchange with President Bush that received a great deal of media coverage.
Webb's current issue with McCain stems from two different proposed bills designed to boost the benefits available for U.S. soldiers. Webb's bill aims to enhance the benefits soldiers receive in return for their service. The measure would dramatically increase the amount of financial assistance veterans could acquire for a college education. Republican Sens. John Warner of Virginia and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska have already voiced their support for the bill.
However, McCain has said he is against Webb's proposal because of a provision that makes the benefits available to any soldier who has served on active duty for at least three months since 9/11. Additionally, Webb's bill would allow both active soldiers and reserves to be eligible to receive the benefits. McCain alleges that this will hurt the military's retention of soldiers, by making service a pseudo-way station to a free college education. McCain supports legislation that would link benefits to the amount of time a soldier has served in the armed forces.
McCain's position on the G.I. bill would seem to present Democrats with an opportunity to go on the attack against the likely Republican presidential nominee even before the party chooses between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Despite McCain's decorated service in Vietnam, in this situation, he can't rely on his military experience alone to justify his position. Webb also served in Vietnam, and as the Politico article points out about McCain, "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."
Wesley Clark and Jon Soltz attempted to debunk the notion that Webb's bill would hurt the military's retention efforts in an Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times on April 10 (h/t to Steve Benen). Clark and Soltz wrote:
First, it is morally reprehensible to fix the system so that civilian life is unappealing to service members, in an attempt to force them to re-up. Education assistance is not a handout, it is a sacred promise that we have made for generations in return for service.
Second, falling military recruitment numbers are just as serious as retention problems. To send the message that this nation will not help you make the most of your life will dissuade a large number of our best and brightest from choosing military service over other career options.
The issue of G.I. benefits doesn't seem like it will disappear anytime soon. CNN reported just yesterday on the many veterans who feel they were misled about the level of benefits they'd receive for their service.