Of all the voting groups John McCain will target this fall, none would seem like more of a sure thing than this country's war veterans. So why is the celebrated Vietnam War hero and POW bracing for a potentially bad week with so many men and women who have served in uniform?
The point of contention between the two seemingly natural allies is a piece of legislation the Senate is expected to vote on this week to update the 1944 G.I. Bill to provide expanded education assistance and opportunities to the armed forces. The bill, co-sponsored by two other Vietnam veterans in the Senate, Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Democrat Jim Webb of Virginia, would effectively provide full tuition and housing costs at a four-year public university for veterans who have served at least three years of active duty. Given his family's and his own long and distinguished service career, the bill would seem like a natural fit for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. But McCain, concerned about the estimated $4 billion annual price tag and the incentive he worries it might give people to leave an already strapped military, has sponsored his own competing proposal. It increases the existing monthly education benefit from around $1,100 to $1,500 a month while adding more generous benefits for those who've served more than 12 years.
McCain's concerns, however, don't seem to impress the vast majority of veterans' organizations. They are feverishly lobbying him to support the Webb and Hagel bill, which simply adds the new program's expense to the $165 billion annual emergency war supplemental, a move President George W. Bush has threatened to veto. (The House version offsets the program by increasing taxes by 0.5% on those individuals who earn more than $500,000 a year and couples who earn more than $1 million, a move also under veto threat.) "This isn't about anything partisan; we are firmly supporting the bill that does right by the veterans, does right by the troops, and that is not McCain's bill," said Ramona Joyce, a spokeswoman for the American Legion. "It could do McCain damage with veteran voters if this issue drags out."
Even with the current dustup, it's hard to imagine John McCain not winning the majority of the veterans vote in November. But the nation's 26 million veterans are by no means a monolithic voting bloc, and any level of disappointment with McCain could sway some undecideds. The Democratic National Committee is already gleefully preparing TV spots about McCain's position on the Senate bill. And, sensing a vulnerability in McCain's seemingly greatest strength, some Democratic strategists are already contemplating what other veterans votes they can bring up this year.
Obama, who sits on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, has already won some support from many Iraq and Afghanistan vets who oppose the war in Iraq, and has been actively trying to expand his appeal to older veterans though his efforts in that regard didn't help him in the primaries in veteran-heavy states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. To underline his own family's military pedigree, Obama plans a trip in coming weeks to the Punchbowl National Cemetery in Hawaii, where his grandfather, who served in World War II, is buried. Obama and McCain's G.O.P. rival, the antiwar presidential candidate Congressman Ron Paul, actually beat McCain in donations from the four branches of active military this year, according to a study by the Center for Responsive Politics.
This is not the first time McCain, who has a proud history of opposing what he views as excessive government spending, has found himself at odds with his fellow veterans on legislation. He's voted for veterans funding bills only 30% of the time, according to a scorecard of roll-call votes put out by the nonpartisan Disabled Americans for America. Under the same system Obama has a 90% rating though, of course, he has spent a much shorter time in Washington. "Senator McCain clearly needs to be recognized for his military service and in some respects that will play to his advantage, but when it actually comes to delivering health care and benefits during war, Senator McCain's going to have some explaining to do," said Paul Sullivan, director of the nonpartisan Veterans for Common Sense.
Supporters of Webb and Hagel's bill dismiss McCain's concerns about the retention issue. While the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill would cause a 16% drop in re-enlistment rates across all four branches of the military, the same study also predicts a 16% uptick in new recruits attracted by the benefit. The bill has 58 co-sponsors, including none other than Obama just two shy of a veto-proof majority. It was passed last week by the House with a comfortable veto-proof majority, but as an amendment to the emergency war supplemental, it could be altered as the two chambers hammer out differences between the two versions. McCain's office is confident that in the reconciliation process a compromise can be worked out. "We're negotiating in good faith and we think they are as well. We want to do something for veterans. We're really working hard to accomplish our goal," said Mark Buse, McCain's Senate chief of staff.
Webb, who has yet to endorse a presidential candidate but is rumored to be on Obama's vice presidential shortlist, might have been more open to talks until last week. After the two camps met but failed to come to a resolution on their differences, McCain's allies moved to attach his version which has nine G.O.P. co-sponsors to an unrelated bill on the Senate floor. The Senate came to a grinding halt for two hours as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid worked to remove McCain's amendment; eventually it was tabled by a vote of 56-42. But the tactic created no good will with Webb's staff. "At this point we were really not in the position to negotiate," said Jess Smith, a spokeswoman for Webb. "We're sticking to our guns that our bill will take care of our vets; incentivizing long-term military service is not the top aim of this bill."