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McCain Missing in Action

(Capitol Briefing's Ben Perhing is on his honeymoon this week, but some of his Washington Post colleagues have agreed to weigh in with postings from time to time in his absence.)

His name was never mentioned, but as Republican and Democratic lawmakers took turns praising each other this afternoon for backing legislation that would greatly expand veterans' education benefits, presumptive Republican nominee John McCain was the Republican elephant not in the room.

On the west front of the Capitol, its white dome resplendent in intermitent sunshine, a pantheon of veterans groups, from leather-clad Rolling Thunder Vietnam bikers to the geriatric World War II survivors of the VFW gathered with Sens. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and John Warner (R-Va.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), conservative Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.) and freshman Democrat Harry Mitchell (Ariz.) to push what is being billed as a G.I. Bill for the 21st Century.

House and Senate Democratic leaders said today it is a virtual certainty that the measure will be attached to war-funding legislation when it begins moving as early as next week. And with 71 Republican co-sponsors in the House and 11 Republicans in the Senate, it is close to unstoppable. But the Bush administration does not like it, fearing it is too expensive, too difficult to administer and so generous it could lure soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen out of a military that desperately needs them.

Caught in the middle is McCain, who may be loathe to jeopardize his new credentials as a small-government conservative but has made his political reputation as a decorated Vietnam war hero. McCain, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham
(R-S.C.) and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) have now proposed a less-expensive version of the veterans' education bill that they say would be easier to administer and less likely to deplete the military's ranks.

But with so much momentum, Webb, Warner and company are accepting no alternatives.

"Folks, this is not a difficult concept," Webb said today. "When our country was paralyzed with fear after 9-11, these are the people who willingly moved forward to the sound of the guns."

"Ladies and gentlemen," Warner pronounced, "we are going to win."

-- Jonathan Weisman

By Eric Pianin  |  April 29, 2008; 2:55 PM ET
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