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Navy Veteran McCain Pushed Making Educational Benefits Transferable to Family

While Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has spoken forcefully on defense-related subjects such as the troop surge in Iraq, he has been less influential on veterans-related issues like updating the GI bill and modernizing the Veterans Affairs Department’s hospital system.

McCain was a prisoner of war in Vietnam and first arrived on Capitol Hill in the 1970s as a Navy liaison. His grandfather and father served in the Navy, and two of his four sons are in the armed forces. A longtime member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain has never served on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

As McCain wrapped up the Republican presidential nomination this spring, Sens. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), both veterans, pressed forward with a bill to expand educational benefits for veterans serving at least 36 months of active duty after the Sept. 11 attacks.

They eventually signed up 57 co-sponsors, including Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), but they couldn’t persuade McCain to join the effort. The Pentagon was also reluctant to come on board, citing concerns that better educational benefits might become an incentive for soldiers to leave active duty earlier.

At the end of April, McCain partnered with GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Richard Burr (N.C.) to introduce a broader alternative that they called the Enhancement of Recruitment, Retention and Readjustment Through Education Act. Its co-sponsors were all Republicans, except Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), who also co-sponsored the original bill. McCain’s bill would allow veterans of six years or more to transfer education benefits to a family member.

“While I don’t think anyone disagrees with the overall intent of [the Webb-Hagel bill], I believe we can and should do more to promote recruitment and retention of servicemen and women, and to ensure that veterans and their families receive the education benefits they deserve, and in a timely manner,” McCain said in a statement submitted to the Congressional Record on the day the bill was introduced.

Though McCain’s bill didn’t make it past the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, his caveat that benefits can be transferred to a family member was included in the Webb-Hagel bill when it became law as part of a supplemental appropriations bill at the end of June.

McCain has also proposed a Veterans’ Care Access Card that would allow veterans to receive care at non-VA hospitals; he said this is intended to supplement, not replace or privatize, programs already in place. He has voted against more funding for the VA hospital system. In August, McCain defended his votes at the Disabled American Veterans convention in Las Vegas.

“Exactly because funding VA programs commands bipartisan support, some in the Congress like to attach unrelated pork barrel appropriations and earmarks to VA bills,” he said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “The result is to mix vital national priorities with wasteful and often worthless political pork.”

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