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Senate Defeats Tax-Credit Bill By 21 Votes

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Washington--Proponents of federal tuition tax-credit legislation said they would re-evaluate their strategy and tactics in light of the Senate's suprisingly strong rejection of such a measure last week.

Senators voted 59-38 last Wednesday to table a tax-credit rider to HJ Res 290, a previously obscure bill dealing with tariffs on items that will be brought into the country for the upcoming summer Olympic Games.

Lobbyists both for and against the tax-credit measure, which would have provided parents with children in private schools with a maximum credit of $300 per child by 1985, had predicted a much closer vote on the motion to kill the amendment. Opponents of the measure previously reported that only 51 senators--the minimum number necessary to defeat the amendment--had indicated they would vote to table a rider if one ever emerged. (See Education Week, Nov. 16, 1983.)

The outcome of the vote remained uncertain to the very end. Vice President George Bush was present on the Senate floor to cast a tie-breaking vote against the tabling motion if one became necessary.

Mr. Bush has been required to cast tie-breaking votes only twice during his three years in office, both times on bills regarding the production of nerve-gas weapons.

The White House was slow to comment on the defeat of the tax-credit measure, which has been a key item in President Reagan's education agenda. Earlier in the week, the President met with several Senate supporters of tax credits and promised to make telephone calls and write letters urging the amendment's adoption.

But that activity apparently did not satisfy representatives of groups that had also fought for the enactment of tax-credit legislation.

"We need to take a very critical look at how this entire matter was handled," said Robert E. Baldwin, a legislative consultant to Citizens for Educational Freedom, an umbrella group of organizations that support tax credits. Mr. Baldwin is also vice president of Learn Inc., a conservative educational foundation that has argued strenuously for enactment of such legislation.

"We know now that we made a mistake with respect to leadership on this in the Senate," Mr. Baldwin said. "It was apparent that, before the vote was taken, no attempt was being made by the leaders to garner suppport for the amendment."

'More Cooperation'

Mr. Baldwin was also critical of Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. He said the pro-tax-credit groups expected "more cooperation" from him. "We never asked for a vote on a going-nowhere bill three days before the recess," he said.

Mr. Baldwin also attributed the defeat of the tax-credit rider to "the law of diminishing returns."

"This is the third time in two and a half years that we have had to mobilize our supporters for a tax-credit vote on the floor of the Senate," he explained. "The two previous times we were told that a vehicle for a rider had been chosen, but the vote never materialized. What we did was cry wolf one too many times."

Both Mr. Baldwin and Sr. Rene Oliver, executive director of the umbrella group of tax-credit supporters, said that their organizations had "pulled out all of the stops" in their lobbying effort for the amendment. The groups, they said, placed a large advertisement in the Washington Post the day of the vote and organized a letter-writing campaign that generated in excess of 100,000 pieces of pro-tax-credit mail during the two weeks preceding the vote.

"This defeat does not spell the end of tuition tax credits," Mr. Baldwin predicted. "I expect that we'll see another vote on the issue before the 1984 elections." He also said it is very likely that votes on tax credits would be weighed heavily by conservative political-action committees when they decide which Congressional candidates to support or target for defeat.

Edward Anthony, director of the U.S. Catholic Conference's office for educational assistance, could not be reached for comment on last week's vote. Parents who send their children to Catholic schools would be main beneficiaries of tax-credit legislation.

Senator Robert J. Dole, Republican of Kansas and sponsor of the rider, said during a televised interview that the vote was a "sharp" blow to the tuition tax-credit movement. He added that "a lot of work will have to be done" in the Senate if there is any hope of passing such a bill in the future.

The tax-credit supporters' dismay over the amendment's defeat was matched by the delight of public-education groups that had worked against it.

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called the Senate's vote "a major victory for public schools and a reaffirmation that our schools can do the job."

"The Senate is to be commended for withstanding the extreme pressure President Reagan has placed on members during the last 24 hours in his 11th-hour attempt to aid private schools with a multi-billion-dollar tuition tax-credit plan," he said.

"By stopping tuition tax credits, the Senate has blocked the Administration's politically motivated campaign to subsidize private schools at the expense of public education," added Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association.

Arnold Fege, director of government relations for the National Congress of Parents and Teachers and coordinator of a coalition of 61 groups opposed to tax credits, credited the amendment's defeat to a "diplomatic, definitely not high-pressure" lobbying effort.

According to Mr. Fege, the organizations had unofficially designated October as "lobbying month against tax credits."

"We requested all the member or-ganizations to schedule meetings or send delegations here during that time," he said. For example, participants at the National School Boards Association's council of urban boards of education meeting, which was held here late last month, were urged to speak to their senators about the tax-credit issue.

Scott Widmeyer, a spokesman for the aft, added that the teachers' union "brought in several delegations of state members to lobby these past few weeks." The organization also asked its 2,100 local presidents "to get on the phone, to send telegrams, and to lobby senators" during the senators' visits home, he said.

Howard Carroll, a spokesman for the nea, said the union's "lobby-by-mail" campaign had generated "at least 100,000 letters to senators" on the tax-credit issue by early last week.

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