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GOP strategist: Democrats outmaneuver GOP over GI Bill

  • Story Highlights
  • Senate passes an update to the GI Bill, extending education benefits to veterans
  • Sen. McCain and President Bush oppose it, citing retention problems
  • Ed Rollins: McCain's "outmaneuvered" and "on the wrong side of this issue"
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As a bill that would expand education benefits for veterans has become a flash point in the early sparring between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, some Republicans admit that the Democrats may have outmaneuvered them on the issue.

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Sen. John McCain has sided with President Bush on opposing a popular GI Bill in Congress.

McCain has defended his opposition to the bill that would expand education benefits for veterans, saying it would hurt the military that he hopes to lead.

The bill, which passed the Senate last week 75-22, would expand education benefits for veterans who served at least three years in the military after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

A former Navy officer and prisoner of war during Vietnam, McCain says the bill would hurt military retention by 16 percent and be a disincentive for service members to become noncommissioned officers, which he called "the backbone of all the services." Democrats cite the Congressional Budget Office, whose figures say the expanded benefits would boost enlistment by 16 percent.Video Watch more of McCain's comments »

"I think John McCain has been outmaneuvered," said GOP strategist Ed Rollins, who had served as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign chairman. "Sometimes in politics, there are intellectual issues and emotional issues."

"John McCain is going against veterans groups; he is going against a constituency that should be his. ... But I think he is on the wrong side of this issue," Rollins said. "A lot of Republicans are voting for this, and I think to a certain extent as it moves forward there will be more and more. There will be tremendous pressure from veterans groups past and present and I think you will see a lot of bipartisan support for this as well."

Over the weekend, Obama, who appears to be the likely Democratic nominee, again tried to tie McCain to Bush by noting that both of them oppose the GI Bill expansion.

"I revere our soldiers and want to make sure they are being treated with honor and respect," Obama said Saturday in Puerto Rico. "I think the GI Bill is one way for us to do that, and I hope that John McCain and George Bush decide they believe the same thing." Video Watch more of Obama's comments »

Obama hasn't served in the military.

"It is really probably Barack Obama's shining moment in this campaign. The way he phrased this debate, the way he framed the issue," said Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic superdelegate who supports Sen. Hillary Clinton's run for president. Video Watch analysts weigh in on the issue »

"Intellectually, John McCain may be right, the president may be right. Emotionally, you are on the wrong side, you can never win an emotional battle in an intellectual argument," Rollins added.

Rollins also said that despite McCain's war hero status, history has shown veterans who run for president don't always capture the veteran vote.

"I think the bottom line here in the statistic that was astonishing to me is George Bush's father was a war hero lost the veterans' vote to Bill Clinton who ... did not serve in a war," Rollins said. "Same way with Bob Dole, a war hero lost the vote."

McCain, along with Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Richard Burr of North Carolina, has introduced an alternative bill that would increase education benefits on a sliding scale based on an individual's years of service.

The GI Bill was created in June 1944, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944. It was designed to help educate and train military veterans returning from WWII. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 7.8 million of 16 million troops who served in WWII received educational or vocational training from the GI Bill.

Soldiers, Marines and airmen, speaking at a Capitol Hill rally on April 29, said they are not given enough funds from the bill to cover college expenses as they were promised.

Todd Bowers, who served two tours in Iraq, told a crowd of veterans, "I came home proud, very proud of my service, with a Purple Heart on my chest and a Navy commendation medal with a 'V' for valor."

"But I didn't come back to the education I was expecting. I came back to three different types of student loans, two of which had gone to collections."

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Najwa McQueen said she joined the Louisiana National Guard in 2004 on what she thought was a promise to help pay for her college education.

"They kind of sell you a dream," she said after the rally. "You think you're going to get all of this stuff, and in reality, you don't get that."

CNN's Ed Hornick, Alexander Marquardt, Ed Henry, Eric Marrapodi, Mary Snow, Deirdre Walsh and Robert Yoon contributed to this report.

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