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Press Conference with Senators Jim Webb (D-VA), John Warner (R-VA), Chuck Hagel (R-NE), and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ); Subject: GI Bill Improvements

Statement

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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SEN. WEBB: I'd like to thank all of you for coming. The United States Senate is a busy place and I know all of us have other commitments that we have to go to. I just wanted to, first of all, say again that we are reintroducing the legislation that I introduced on the first day of the Senate last year after 14 months of working with veterans groups, working with other members, and now with 35 sponsors on the bill -- Senator Hagel became the lead Republican co- sponsor, a longtime friend of mine, as I mentioned, in October. We're very pleased to have Senator Warner having joined us. I won't go through all the things that we just said, and we're very happy also to have Senator Lautenberg here.

This is sort of a united front. We've got two people who were -- the only two ground combat veterans from Vietnam in the Senate and we've got two members, you know, showing the bipartisanship from the World War II veterans in the Senate. This is the bill now, as we reintroduce it -- just to refresh some of the facts here, the Montgomery GI Bill was a peacetime GI Bill. It was designed for recruitment. The average payout on the Montgomery GI Bill at present is $6,000 a year. You're seeing a lot of numbers that have gone back and forth about what the maximum payout might be. That is the average payout, and as you will recall, our service members actually have to pay into this program $100 a month for the first year of their enlistment and for another year if they want to get the maximum benefit that people talk about. It's time for the GI Bill to catch up with the reality of what our men and women have been doing since 9/11. That's been the purpose of this all along.

And we are very hopeful now that we can get a united front, set politics aside, any politics that might have been involved, and to move this legislation forward this year. It's time sensitive because people's lives are moving forward. And I'm very, very pleased to have the co-sponsorship that we have and the lead cosponsors that we have with us today.

SEN. HAGEL: I would only add I appreciate very much an opportunity to be part of this effort with my colleagues, not only these three represented here with me who have given so much to this country in so many ways, but others who are cosponsoring the bill. We have not have an upgrade, an update on the GI Bill for 25 years. We live in a far more dangerous, complicated, combustible world today than we ever have. We are asking men and women to come forward and serve this nation as they always have in the history of our country, and they're doing it. And they're doing it on a volunteer basis.

Education has always been a core value for any society, especially our society and our country. Education has allowed all of us opportunities that growing up many of us never dreamed would be possible. And to acknowledge the service of these men and women who put their country and their values first; selfless service. It is not only the right thing to do, but it's a reinvestment in our country. It's a smart thing to do. So I am hopeful, as Senator Webb and Senator Warner and Lautenberg and our more than 30 other cosponsors, that the Senate, the House, the administration will come together and act on this, this year.

This is important, it's relevant, it's necessary, and at a time we are defining down the standards of the United States Army, this is particularly important. No institution can survive when the standards are defined down. And we have had over the last 25 years, because of tremendous effort and commitment and leadership in our military, produced the most remarkable force structure the world's ever known. The best educated, best led, best motivated, best equipped, best trained. And the core of that is a commitment to something greater than one's self-interest. And this is just another dimension of how we can not only acknowledge that, but probably even more importantly, preserve that.

SEN. WARNER: It's interesting to note that this July, July 1, 35 years ago, the draft ended and we got the all-volunteer force. And one of my motivations in joining by good friend Jim Webb and Frank Lautenberg and Chuck Hagel here was to put in place another building block to ensure that we'll continue with that all-volunteer force and never return to a draft.

I'm the product of -- the beneficiary of, as I said on the floor, I wouldn't be a senator today had it not been for the GI Bill given to me twice for modest service on active duty. But in this bill is a very challenging provision that's directed towards America's institutions of higher learning, particularly those in the private sector, where their tuition standards and tuition dollar value today are beyond the reach of the American GI stepping out of uniform in this generation and for the years to come unless we make this change.

Frank Lautenberg and I were of the generation of World War II. You could go to any university or college, assuming you had the academic credentials to enter it, because the government paid the full tuition rates of the university or college that accepted you. It was as simple as that. And through the years, the dollar amount has been reduced. So this bill challenges the academic community to step up, join the all-volunteer force. And we have formulated that 50 percent would be paid by the taxpayer of the United States and 50 percent by that institution of higher learning that accepts today's GI.

SEN. LAUTENBERG: I want to thank my colleagues for their support for this, particularly Senator Webb for his leadership on this issue.

I look at it from perhaps a different aspect for the moment, and that is to think about the generation that existed -- I hate to use the terminology -- in the last century that built something called the Greatest Generation, acknowledged to be the greatest generation. And why is it that that happened? Well, it's pretty simple. They educated everybody who was educable and invested in bringing the talent that ultimately led this country to its incredible standing and growth.

I came from a poor working-class family at a time where my folks had to resort to storekeeping in order to keep the family together. I, as a result of the GI Bill, went far beyond anything I ever expected. I was able to go to Columbia University, way out of reach -- for any financial reason, out of the reach for thought. And, Senator Warner, we also got $100 a month, at least I -- no, not my salary, that was 50 (dollars) -- (laughter) -- but for $100 a month accompanying the tuition. And without a lot of modesty, I was able, with two friends, to start a company called ADP, Automatic Data Processing. We invented a new part of business life, specialization, in a particular aspect of management, so that we helped companies grow, helped them to do what they did best. And that company that we started with nothing, and my contribution came from what it was that I learned in the university. That company has over 40,000 employees today and has the longest growth record of any company in America and more than 10 percent each and every year on the profit side.

And here I am, United States Senate. I'll leave it to others to judge how successful I am there, but the fact is that I am in my fourth term in the United States Senate. My principle regret is that my parents didn't live to see it all happen, but it happened because my country gave me a boost.

I had served, I did what I had to during the war, and in gratitude, if nothing else, the country built the great generation that made this country the country it was. We dare not miss that opportunity this time. We have these people graduating when we're going abroad to bring scientists in here, to bring those who are leadership quality here because we can't fill those spots with our own people. To me, it says America, wake up, get this done. And I would say to our colleagues: join in. This should be a unanimous vote, in my judgment.

Thank you.

SEN. WEBB: Thank you. Do we have any questions?

Yes, sir?

Q Even as late as yesterday -- (inaudible) -- administration strongly opposes your legislation, and I don't think the revisions you've given us today are going to change that fundamental belief -- (inaudible) -- if you make GI Bill benefits too good, people are going to get out of the service and use them. How do you overcome that kind of opposition? Does Senator Warner's endorsement now of your bill help you do that?

SEN. WEBB: I think Senator Warner brings a tremendous amount of credibility with the administration to the table, and having also spent a good number of years in the Pentagon, I think the wisdom that he brings can't be missed by this administration. As you know, for yesterday and many other times when I've been speaking with people who work in the Pentagon, I've got five years in the Pentagon, I do a lot of manpower work, and there are two things that mitigate against what this administration is saying.

The first is that right now, with respect to their recruiting pool, as Senator Hagel was mentioning, we are getting everything we can out of a relatively small group of potential recruits. This would open up the recruiting base. It would actually expand recruiting because you have so many people in this country who may not want to make the military a career, but who by virtue of love of country, family tradition, sense of adventure, whatever, might want to serve if they could see some other incentive. And this is a great incentive.

And the second is the number one recruiting tool in the United States military is a veteran who's proud of their service back in the community. And we need to take care of these people. We need to give them a chance at a first-class future, and that's going to have an obvious ripple effect in everything that they're doing. They just need to get smart about this.

Q Senator, if you have it, what is the cost estimate for the bill with the changes you've made? Before you put it, I think, in the range of $2 billion a year. Is there a new figure?

SEN. WEBB: We don't know. And the only thing I can say about that is -- also, a couple of things about that, actually. Right now, DOD seems comfortable with the idea they said yesterday that with purely on this notion of transferability of the current Montgomery GI Bill, they are comfortable with the idea of spending potentially a billion dollars a year on a bad bill, on a bill that's not doing the job. And we're pretty comfortable that we're around 2 billion (dollars) on this. We've had a hard time getting it costed out.

But there's two other things to be said. One is the war in Afghanistan and the occupation of Iraq are costing between $15 (billion) and $16 billion a year -- excuse me, a month at this present point. And the other is that in 1944, when they put the GI Bill in place, nobody was asking what it was going to cost. This is a cost of war. And other people may want to add to that.

SEN. LAUTENBERG: Well, just to say if I might. Look, we spend 3 billion (dollars) plus a week to continue the war in Iraq. And everyone knows that there are supplementals that boost that substantially. We're looking at potentially more than a half trillion dollars already spent there. I assure you that we can find the money in that budget or out of other sources to get it done. And we're willing to take our fight, all of us learned how to fight, take it to the White House. We're going to win that battle, too.

SEN. WARNER: I'd like to see the first person to stand up and say that the freedoms that we enjoy today here in the security of our homes and workplaces, and the freedom of academia to make its decisions on the campuses, is not owing to men and women -- generations of men and women who've gone forward to guarantee that freedom yesterday and today and in the future. And mind you, less than one percent of the males in the United States of America really have the privilege of wearing that uniform.

SEN. HAGEL: I would just add, in relation to your question, this is an administration who has not been too concerned about spending $3 (billion) to $4 billion a week on war. There is a credibility issue here and I'll take our side of this argument any day. This has nothing to do with whether we are committing our force structure and this nation and our treasury to protect the security of this country. Of course we are. It's the highest responsibility any government has, any of us have, when we swear an oath of allegiance to the Constitution of this country.

That isn't the issue here. And I am, quite frankly, offended if this administration is talking about not supporting this bill based on money. This is an administration that didn't veto one bill in four years. This is an administration who let earmarks go on and on and on. It's a little hard for me to put this in a category of seriousness if that's the argument that it's costing too much.

Q Senator Warner?

SEN. WARNER: Yes?

Q What changed your thinking on this bill? Last year, you were not embracing it, now you clearly are. How did you come ---

SEN. WARNER: Simply because it took time for us to sort of work out a formula that all of us participated in as to how we were going to challenge the private-sector institutions to come forward and make the contributions that are necessary to meet these high costs of tuition across America. And one we struck upon that formulation, I signed on.

Q Senator, on the floor you had mentioned that there still could be other changes expected. Do you expect any significant changes that would help win over other Republicans' support?

SEN. WARNER: Well, perhaps changes to make it stronger, but I think I would join my distinguished colleague back here, Jim Webb. Jim Webb is not one that's going to yield any ground.

Q Is there a commitment from leadership, Senator, of bringing it to the floor -- (inaudible).

SEN. WEBB: Well, let's say, first of all, we just -- (inaudible). Senator Warner and I have talked about this bill many times. He has always supported the concept. Always. And we had to work with the different veterans groups and other members. For instance, I mentioned on the floor Senator Lincoln had bill addressing the Guard and Reserve issues. We work with a lot of people to bring together this -- what we have now, which is a very strong composite. I don't expect that there would be any changes of any significance whatsoever from where we are now. Senator Reid is very committed to bring the bill to the floor. We're hopeful that we can get the same show of support from the Republican side and just move this.

Q Senator Webb, when you about the -- (inaudible) -- Republicans, the people -- (off mike).

SEN. WEBB: This is what Senator Warner was mentioning. We did change a -- the original bill basically said, as in World War II, that any college that a veteran could get into, that we would pay -- or the government would pay for full tuition, books, plus a monthly stipend. We did a couple of things. One is we capped that at the level of the state institutions now, the highest institution. And then we started working, at Senator Warner's urging, with people in the private university environment, particularly Jim Wright, who's the president of Dartmouth, who is a former Marine, who had done some things on his own to get some assurances that there could be a cooperative program between the private universities and the government to sort of meet that -- we call it the delta, the difference between what the maximum payment would be and what their payment is -- (inaudible). And that's what we're working on here in this particular bill.

Q (Off mike.)

SEN. WEBB: It's optional. If they don't want to then we won't pay the money, or the government won't pay the money.

Q (Off mike.)

SEN. WEBB: We're hoping that Chairman Akaka will move it. We had some discussions with him last night and we're going over with his staff right now all of these changes. And we're hopeful that he will move it. There has also been, you know, some talk that it might reach the floor in other ways. But we haven't gotten there yet.

Q Can you talk a little about the urgency? (Off mike.)

SEN. WEBB: Absolutely is. It's late. It's late. This bill should have been in place years ago. This is a transitional benefit. It's a benefit to assist people in their readjustment to civilian life. And here are two classic examples of how that happened in World War II.

And by the way, for every dollar that was spent on the World War II GI Bill, our national treasury got seven dollars back in terms of tax revenues because of the success of these people. So, the clock is ticking. You know, we've had six-and-a-half years now since 9/11 and people who would be eligible for this benefit have been getting out of the military. You can hardly get a community college education based on the payments that you get out of the Montgomery GI Bill, $6,000 a year on the average, after they have paid in. So we need to get into place. It's extremely time-sensitive, in my view.

SEN. HAGEL: With Senator Lautenberg we've got a significant return.

(Laughter.)

SEN. LAUTENBERG: That's why I like paying more taxes.

(Laughing.)

SEN. WEBB: Thank you very much.


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