WASHINGTON - The House kicked off a partisan debate Thursday on a Democratic plan to sharply boost education benefits for Iraq-Afghanistan veterans as the price for approving President Bush's long-stalled request for war funding.
The Democratic plan would impose a surtax on individuals with incomes above $500,000 to pay for the 10-year, $52 billion cost of boosting the GI Bill to try to provide Iraq veterans with college educations. Couples would pay the tax on income exceeding $1 million.
"We are talking about people who are making over $1 million to pay a small sacrifice for this war where our military families are paying a huge sacrifice," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.
Senators in both parties, however, were balking at the one-half of a percentage point increase in tax rates. At the same time, Republicans and business groups said the plan amounts to an increase in taxes on small businesses that pay taxes at the same rates as individuals.
GOP Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said the Democratic bill "would bust the budget with billions in nonemergency spending but also raise taxes on small business. I can't think of a worse time to implement a tax increase with a weak economy that is struggling to create and grow jobs."
The war spending would provide $163 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan into next year. But Democrats are focusing more on their add-ons, especially the big increase in the GI Bill and extension of unemployment insurance for people whose benefits have run out.
The two items, along with proposed restrictions on Bush's ability to conduct the war in Iraq, have led the White House to promise to veto the measure.
The White House weighed in with an official veto promise Thursday that also attacked the Democratic plan for increasing taxes.
"The president has been clear that tax increases are unacceptable," the White House statement said.
The tax increase on wealthier people was inserted after moderate House Democrats demanded the bill comply with budget rules that require new benefit programs to be "paid for" with accompanying revenue increases or spending cuts.
The new GI Bill essentially would guarantee a full scholarship at any in-state public university, along with a monthly housing stipend, for people who serve in the military for at least three years. It is aimed at replicating the benefits awarded veterans of World War II.
The House measure also includes money for foreign aid and military construction projects as well as flood protection around New Orleans and a variety of smaller items. All that brings the total spending to $183.7 billion.
Taken together, the changes to Bush's war requests probably are not sufficient to provoke a veto on their own. The same cannot be said of Democrats' plans to extend unemployment benefits or improve the GI Bill.
Besides the GI benefits, Democrats have tacked on a plan to give 13 more weeks of unemployment checks to people whose benefits have expired and 13 weeks beyond that in states with especially high unemployment rates.
Bush also has threatened to veto any bill that ties his hands on Iraq. The House measure would require Bush to begin pulling out troops from Iraq within 30 days once the bill becomes law, with a nonbinding goal of a complete withdrawal of combat troops within 18 months. Senate Republicans are expected to block the provision.
Democrats are bringing the bill to the full House under an unusual process in which it is broken into three separate pieces for votes in the House and Senate: war money, anti-war policy provisions and domestic spending.
The idea is to allow anti-war Democrats to vote against the war money - which Republicans will provide the votes to pass - while ensuring the money goes out to support troops overseas.
Democrats would get to vote for restrictions on the war, but the provisions would never make it through the Senate to face a veto. Republicans would have to decide whether to stick with Bush in a difficult vote on extending unemployment insurance and passing the new GI Bill.
Also Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee planned a vote on its version of the war spending.
© 2008 Associated Press