WASHINGTON — The House on Thursday approved a new GI Bill, with a significant expansion of veterans' education benefits, as part of a war-spending measure that will pay for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan into next year and also provide aid for the jobless.
The measure must be approved by the Senate, but its prospects brightened after House Democratic and Republican leaders and the White House reached an agreement on the bill to head off another confrontation over the war and spending -- no small feat in an election year.
Its centerpiece is the popular modernization of the World War II-era GI Bill.
The new benefits would offer full tuition up to the cost of the most expensive in-state public university -- plus stipends for books and housing -- for post-Sept. 11 veterans who have served three years of active duty. Service members would be allowed to transfer educational benefits to their spouses or dependents.
"After tonight, in a bipartisan way . . . we can proudly say to our troops . . . that when they come home, we will say 'thank you' by sending them to college," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).
The White House said in a statement that the legislation would "build upon the GI Bill's historic legacy of ensuring brighter futures for service members and their families" and urged Congress to send it to President Bush swiftly.
The expanded veterans benefits erupted as an issue last month in the presidential campaign. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the presumptive Democratic nominee, criticized his expected Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, for opposing a bill sponsored by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), a Vietnam veteran and former Navy secretary. McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, attacked Obama for challenging his support for the military.
McCain expressed concern that providing returning troops with a free college education after three years of active duty could spur departures at a time when the military is struggling to retain service members.
But the addition of a provision allowing service members to transfer benefits to spouses or children appeared to win over McCain, who said Thursday that it would encourage people to stay in the military.
"That has always been my primary concern," he said in a statement, "and it is essential that we continue to act decisively to encourage military service and ensure the well-being of our all-volunteer force."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a McCain ally, added: "A service member who chooses to make the military their career will be able to use this benefit to pay for their children's college education."
The measure provides $162 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through early summer of 2009, after a new president takes office.
It also would extend unemployment benefits by 13 weeks for those who exhaust their state aid, typically 26 weeks. The provision is important to California, which has one of the nation's highest unemployment rates -- 6.2% in April.
The measure includes other domestic spending, including $2.65 billion to respond to tornadoes and flooding in the Midwest and $5.8 billion to strengthen New Orleans levees.
It also includes $465 million -- $85 million less than the president sought -- for a Bush initiative to aid Mexico and Central American nations in combating drug trafficking.
In striking a deal with Republicans to advance the measure, Democratic leaders laid bare divisions within their caucus. They upset antiwar lawmakers by omitting timelines for troop withdrawals from Iraq and angered more conservative Democrats by dropping a way to pay the projected $63-billion cost of the new education benefits through 2018.
"How can anyone in this chamber give this president another blank check for the war in Iraq?" Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said. "For me, this is one compromise too many; it represents one cave-in too many."
Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma) called the lack of withdrawal timelines "a profound disappointment to the millions of Americans who put Democrats into power hoping we could force a change in Iraq."
But Pelosi, among 151 Democrats voting against war funding, said that the House had "no choice," knowing that the president would a veto a bill if it included a troop withdrawal deadline. She said, however, that she would "hope that this is the last time that there will ever be another dollar spent without constraint, without conditions," for the war.
The House voted on the bill in two parts to allow antiwar Democrats to support the education benefits and aid to the jobless without backing war funding. The war-funding amendment passed, 268 to 155. The measure providing for education benefits and other spending was approved, 416 to 12.
Democratic leaders dropped an effort to impose a new 0.5% tax on individuals earning more than $500,000 a year and couples earning more than $1 million annually to pay for the education benefits in the face of a White House veto threat.