Congress Passes Merkley Bill in Veterans Compromise

WASHINGTON – Today the Senate passed compromise legislation to reform the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and improve veterans’ benefits, which includes a provision authored by Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley to expand educational benefits to spouses of service members who die in the line of the duty. The bill, which was passed by the House yesterday, will now go to the President to be signed into law.

The Merkley provision, titled the Spouses of Heroes Education Act, was introduced in 2013 with bipartisan sponsorship from Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV).  An Oregon veteran named Robert Thornhill had contacted Senator Merkley about the idea of expanding educational benefits, which became the legislation that passed today.

“To lose a husband or a wife in war is a tragic sacrifice to the U.S. that our nation can’t repay,” said Merkley. “At the very least, though, Americans whose spouses die in the line of duty deserve a fair shot at receiving an education, rebuilding their lives, and creating a firm foundation for their families. This bill will expand the Fry Scholarship to make higher education attainable for more of those spouses with families to support as they go back to school. I commend Oregon veteran Robert Thornhill for sharing this excellent proposal. His thoughtful idea will benefit numerous spouses of fallen heroes.”

The broader legislation passed today is a bipartisan, bicameral compromise between the Senate and the House after competing bills passed in each chamber last month. Sen. Merkley was one of five original cosponsors of the bipartisan Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014, the Senate bill that served as the basis for the compromise.

Currently, under the Survivors’ and Dependents’ Education Assistance Program, spouses of fallen service members are only eligible to receive federal education benefits. These spouses receive an allowance of up to $936 per month, which often falls short of the full cost of tuition and fees. The Spouses of Heroes Education Act amends the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill to expand the Fry Scholarship, which provides full in-state tuition and fees to children of service members who have died in the line of duty. This change would allow spouses, too, to receive the full cost of public, in-state undergraduate tuition and fees, plus a monthly living stipend and textbook allowance. 

The Merkley-Heller bill received the endorsements of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), the National Guard Association of the United States (NGAUS), the Vietnam Veterans of America, the Air Force Sergeants Association, the Military Order of the Purple Heart (MOPH), the American Legion, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), AMVETS, and the Student Veterans of America.