WASHINGTON — Congress has spared a program that provides tuition aid to active duty military from the budget knife.
The House cleared a massive spending bill on Thursday that includes a provision restoring the program for the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps. The legislation, passed on a bipartisan 318-109 vote, now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.
Faced with some $43 billion in automatic, across-the-board cuts that kicked in March 1, the military had suspended the program in a budget-cutting move, saying they could save $250 million to $300 million. Two senators — Republican Jim Inhofe and Democrat Kay Hagan — fought to preserve the program that allows active military to attend school part time while serving.
The two argued that it was vital for recruitment and retention in the all-volunteer force.
The Senate, on a voice vote Wednesday, backed an amendment instructing the Pentagon to find money elsewhere in the defense budget to keep the program alive.
"This is something I have talked about to our troops in the field," Inhofe, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said during a brief debate in the Senate on Wednesday. "Many of them were so alarmed that it was even suggested they would take away the very thing that caused them to enlist in the first place."
Last year, members of the active military took 870,000 courses and earned 50,500 degrees, diplomas and certificates, according to the senators.
"It truly does help prepare our service members for a successful transition into the civilian workforce when they choose to leave the military," said North Carolina's Hagan, a member of the Armed Services panel.
The military had already approved payments in the program, but the suspension would have affected military personnel looking to cover the cost for classes in the summer and fall semesters.
Inhofe pointed out that the nation's young veterans face high unemployment when they leave the military. The latest Labor Department numbers out Thursday suggested that the jobs outlook has improved for veterans, especially those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The annual report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the unemployment rate for the latest generation of veterans fell from 12.1 in 2011 to 9.9 percent last year. That's above the national unemployment rate of 7.7 percent in February.