WASHINGTON — House lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a massive expansion to GI Bill benefits last week. Now supporters are wondering if Senate officials will be able to do the same.

Advocates for the plan on Monday lobbied upper chamber leaders not to derail the popular legislation with “political grandstanding,” saying finalizing the sweeping reforms should be an easy task before senators break for the summer.

“It’s time for our senators to guarantee this benefit for those who serve our country today and in the future, and get this done,” Student Veterans of America President Jared Lyon said in a statement. “We look forward to the Senate scheduling this vote to achieve a ‘Forever GI Bill’ now, and not wait until after the August recess.”

Already 60 of the chamber’s 100 members have signed on as co-sponsors to the legislation, which would remove the 15-year deadline on using Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits and expand tuition payouts for certain reservists, Purple Heart recipients and surviving dependents.

The moves are expected to cost about $3 billion over the next decade, an expense that will be covered by small reductions in monthly housing allowance payouts for the GI Bill recipients.

The measure — the culmination of two years of legislative lobbying from a coalition of veterans groups — passed the House on July 24 by a vote of 405-0, with House leaders hailing the move as an easy legislative victory.

But in the Senate, the ongoing health care fight has slowed nearly all congressional business. The chamber is expected to break for August recess sometime in the next two weeks, and Democratic and Republican leaders remained deadlocked on several routine business issues.

The GI Bill plan has been put on a possible fast-track for full chamber consideration, along with a proposed funding fix for the Veterans Affairs Choice program. The latter issue faces a looming deadline, with veterans potentially being kicked out of the private health care assistance program in the next two weeks.

It is expected to get approved in the waning days of the Senate session.

But the GI Bill expansion lacks any such deadline. Advocates worry that senators anxious to return to their districts for summer campaigning may simply leave the measure for the fall, damaging the legislative momentum of the House vote.

In an action alert sent Monday, SVA officials warned supporters that inaction on the issue this week could mean “we’ll miss our opportunity to pass the Forever GI Bill.”

Senate Republican leadership on Monday said they’re looking to move past the health care impasse, but have not yet specified what work they hope to complete in the next few days. They’ve been negotiating with Senate Democratic leaders on a deal to move a backlog of executive branch nominees before the break.

Lyon hopes the GI Bill plan gets included in that work too. His organization will spend the next few days pushing Senate offices to move the GI Bill expansion along.

“Veterans should be a top priority, and (this legislation) should be at the top of the to-do list,” he said.

 

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.