WASHINGTON - Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D., Pa.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D., N.Y.) shared a stage yesterday to introduce legislation that would dramatically increase benefits to Iraq-era military veterans.
Calling the companion measures "a GI Bill of Rights for the 21st century," the legislation would fully fund college education, provide affordable home loans, and establish a "microloan" program for entrepreneurial business ventures.
It was the second time in several months that the freshman House member from Bucks County has shared the limelight with a front-running Democratic presidential candidate.
In February, Murphy joined Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in introducing legislation to stop the Iraq troop surge and redeploy troops out of the country.
It is not surprising that "the party's power players" want to ally with Murphy, said Chris Borick, a Muhlenberg College political science professor.
"He's young, he's photogenic, he's good at press conferences," Borick said. "His military service and his duty in Iraq give him credibility on military issues and positioned him among his freshman class as attractive to party leaders."
Murphy, who was delayed by voting and belatedly joined the news conference at the Reserve Officers Association building across from the Capitol, ignited endorsement speculation when he thanked a beaming Clinton, proclaiming: "She's a winner!"
No, not an endorsement, Murphy said afterward. It was just rational exuberance for the bill.
"She is a winner," Murphy said. "I've told people that I'm in one of the most competitive races in the country," he said. "I've got 35,000 more Republicans [than Democrats] in my district."
"I'm not endorsing a candidate for president," Murphy added. "I have to fight my own fights."
Murphy is expected to be challenged in the Eighth District next year by the incumbent Republican he beat in November, Michael Fitzpatrick.
Clinton met Murphy in Baghdad in 2003 when he was serving as an Army captain in the 82d Airborne.
"I'm happy to see Patrick has continued his public service in another capacity," Clinton said at the news conference. "He's already taken a tremendous leadership role in the House."
At the news conference, the pair also spoke in continuing opposition to President Bush's Iraq war policies.
Clinton said she was baffled by the president's decision to name Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute as war czar. "For the life of me," she said, wondering how this would affect the military chain of command, "I don't understand what this is supposed to be."
Murphy has been among the leaders in the House calling for the redeployment of troops in Iraq. "The American people spoke in November," he said. "Unfortunately, the White House doesn't want to listen."
An enhanced GI Bill was part of Murphy's election platform. Tapping a personal connection with an 82d Airborne veteran working for Clinton, the two staffs worked together on measures to be introduced in the House and Senate. Among the provisions are:
Education. The act will finance undergraduate education for eight semesters of tuition, and fund other costs. Military members now pay a $1,200 fee before leaving the service, and the program covers 70 percent to 75 percent of college tuition.
Housing. The act will exempt veterans from paying loan fees and expand opportunities for veterans to buy, build or improve a home by increasing access to low-interest loans for homes valued up to $625,000. The current program requires loan fees and is capped at homes worth up to $417,000.
Jobs. The act would establish a Veterans Microloan Program. It would give microloans for entrepreneurial ventures up to $100,000, with interest rates capped at 2.5 percent and without requiring collateral.
The bill will guarantee eligibility to all service members - active duty, National Guard, and Reserves - who have served since Sept. 11, 2001, and deployed overseas in support of a combat operation.
The senator said the Congressional Budget Office has yet to tally the program's cost, but her staff puts it at $4 billion to $5 billion a year - if fully used, which Clinton said was unlikely.
"I'd love to do more, but this is a practical bill that Congress can pass," Murphy said, adding that it would likely be taken up by the House Armed Services Committee, which counts both he and Philadelphia Rep. Robert A. Brady, also a Democrat, as members.
"It's got a great chance," Murphy said. "Who's not going to support this?"