House Panel Approves Expansion of GI Bill Eligibility After Sparring over COVID Vaccine

·4 min read

Veterans who received a general discharge from the military for anything other than some serious crimes would be eligible for GI Bill benefits under a bill advanced by a House committee Tuesday.

The House Veterans Affairs Committee advanced the bill along largely party lines after lawmakers sparred over the military's COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The bill, as introduced by Rep. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Wis., was originally intended to extend GI Bill benefits only to veterans who have been discharged for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, but the committee voted to replace Fitzgerald's proposal with a much broader one offered by committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif.

Right now, veterans are eligible for GI Bill benefits only if they received an honorable discharge from military service.

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Under Takano's measure, veterans who received a general discharge under honorable conditions would be eligible for GI Bill benefits unless they committed or attempted to commit desertion, mutiny, espionage, sexual assault, murder, aggravated arson or burglary with intent to harm.

Takano said the change could help "tens of thousands of veterans who left the service due to mental illness," as well as make "amends to the tens of thousands of veterans forced out of the military during 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' or due to the their sexual orientation."

General discharges are given when a service member's performance is broadly satisfactory but may have involved a minor infraction or did not meet all the conditions of a contract, such as drug or alcohol use. Those who commit serious crimes such as the ones listed in Takano's measure aren't supposed to be eligible for a general discharge.

"I don't think we should prioritize those who have refused a vaccine ahead of those who were forced to leave the military for their sexual orientation or because of mental health or other personal reasons," Takano said during Tuesday's committee meeting. "Those with a general discharge shouldn't be left out in the cold, and we shouldn't allow those who refuse vaccines to jump ahead of the line."

The committee approved Takano's amendment 17-13 and then voted 15-13 to advance the bill as amended. Breaking party ranks, Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., voted against the amendment and advancing the bill, and Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., voted for the amendment and advancing the bill, while Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., voted for the amendment but against advancing the bill.

Republicans bristled at the overhauling of their attempt to shield from consequences service members who have refused orders to take the COVID-19 vaccine, accusing Democrats of a "political stunt" because the broader measure isn't likely to be voted on by the full House without a provision offsetting what Republicans said is a potential cost of $11 billion over a decade.

"This is nothing more than a malign attempt to turn the screws on service members who have different thoughts on vaccines," said Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont.

Republicans, who have baselessly questioned the efficacy and safety of COVID-19 vaccines, have made several attempts to force the Pentagon to suspend its vaccination mandate or lessen the consequences for refusers, largely through amendments to the annual defense policy bill.

Most of those attempts have been unsuccessful, with Democrats narrowly controlling Congress. But Republicans did successfully insert a provision in last year's defense policy bill that said service members who refuse to take the COVID-19 vaccine can receive no less than a general discharge under honorable conditions. That protected most of those service members' veterans benefits, except for GI Bill benefits.

During Tuesday's House Veterans Affairs Committee debate, ranking member Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., lamented service members with a "very, very excellent record" losing those education benefits.

But Bost also argued that the broader expansion of GI Bill benefits advanced Tuesday "starts us down a slippery slope that can negatively affect good order and discipline in our military."

"For us to insert our judgment like this is simply unprecedented," he said.

Democrats shot back that Republicans' own proposal could create issues with good order and discipline related to vaccinations, 17 of which are required in addition to COVID-19.

"It would create a pretty difficult command climate for the commanders that right now want to keep their troops safe and healthy and in the fight if their troops believe that they can basically decide which vaccines they want to receive and which ones they don't and that the penalties for that decision are minimal," Lamb said.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: Troops Booted for Refusing Vaccine Guaranteed at Least a General Discharge Under Defense Bill