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Washington--For education watchers here, figuring out what the lineups of key Congressional committees are likely to be next year is like trying to play dominoes blindfolded.

Depending on the outcome of next week's elections, there is a seemingly endless series of possible permutations in the cast of characters who will make the crucial decisions on Capitol Hill about education in the 101st Congress.

The Republican membership of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee could undergo major upheaval, the chairmanship of several key budget committees will change hands, and several staunch allies of education are departing.

Above all, education advocates are wringing their hands over the possibility that Senator Lowell P. Weicker, Jr., of Connecticut could lose what is rated as a close contest against his Democrat opponent, Joseph Lieberman.

The liberal Republican is ranking minority member on both the appropriations subcommittee that oversees education spending and the Labor and Human Resources subcommittee on the handicapped.

Education lobbyists last week called the prospect of a loss by Mr. Weicker "devastating," "a disaster," and "something I'd rather not think about."

"Given Senator Weicker's posi4tion on education and his position in the Senate, it's a scary proposition," said Susan Frost, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding. "He's been one of our strongest advocates."

Mr. Weicker's fate would be even more significant if Republicans regain control of the Senate next week. Given the Democrats' 54-46 edge, however, most observers do not expect that to occur. The following scenarios assume that the Democrats will win controlling majorities in both the House and the Senate.

Labor and Human Resources

Even if Mr. Weicker returns to Washington, there will be changes on Labor and Human Resources.

The Democratic side of the slate is expected to change little, if at all. But the retirement of Robert T. Stafford of Vermont leaves the ranking Republican slot on the education subcommittee open, and all but one minority member of the panel is already ranking member of another subcommittee. That lone member is Dan Quayle of Indiana, who is running for Vice President on the Republican ticket.

If Mr. Quayle is not in the Senate next year, Mr. Weicker or Strom Thurmond of South Carolina could assume the ranking position if either chose to switch from other subcommittees.

But there is also speculation that Mr. Thurmond may take the ranking spot on Armed Services, with Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, who is ranking member on the full Labor and Human Resources Committee, taking the ranking minority spot on Judiciary that Mr. Thurmond now holds. If that comes to pass, Mr. Hatch could also become ranking Republican on the education subcommittee.

That would leave the ranking position on Labor and Human Resources open for Mr. Weicker, or for Thad Cochran of Mississippi if Mr. Weicker is not re-elected.

If Mr. Hatch does not take the subcommittee slot, it could go to a new member of the committee.

That could work to the benefit of the education community, because the most likely new member is Representative James M. Jeffords, the moderate Vermont Republican who is expected to win Mr. Stafford's seat. Mr. Jeffords, considered an education ally, was ranking minority member of the House Education and Labor Committee, and has already said that he wants to be assigned to its Senate counterpart.

Education lobbyists hope that, whoever gets the posts, the tradition of bipartisan cooperation fostered by Mr. Stafford and the subcommittee chairman, Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, will continue.

"That cooperation is so important in terms of lining up bipartisan support for everything that comes through the committee," a committee aide said.

House Education and Labor

Mr. Jeffords' departure from Education and Labor is expected to cause a less dramatic change. He is slated to be followed as ranking Republican by Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania.

Education advocates rate Mr. Goodling as highly as they do Mr. Jeffords. Moreover, he has a strong working relationship with Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, the California Democrat who chairs both the full committee and its education subcommittee.

"Not that there aren't differences between Mr. Goodling and Mr. Jeffords, but in terms of their philosophy in education they are very similar," commented a House committee aide.

Aides said Mr. Goodling is likely to retain his ranking-Republican position on the education subcommittee in addition to filling that slot on the full Education and Labor panel. If he chooses not to do so, Steve Bartlett of Texas and Harris W. Fawell of Illinois would be next in line. Both men advocate a much smaller federal role in education than does Mr. Goodling.

Spending Panels

While no changes significant for education interests are anticipated on the House Appropriations Committee, chairmen of three other panels that affect education spending are stepping down.

The retirement of Senator Lawton Chiles, Democrat of Florida, leaves open the chairmanship of both the Budget Committee and the appropriations subcommittee overseeing education.

Although little is certain at this point, most aides and observers think Senator Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina will assume Mr. Chiles's slot on the appropriations subcommitee. That prospect pleases education advocates almost as much as the possibility of losing Mr. Weicker concerns them.

"Hollings has a track record of getting the money," said Bruce Hunter of the American Association of School Administrators. "He has been a supporter."

On the Senate Budget panel, Jim Sasser of Tennessee is rated as the likely successor to Mr. Chiles, and both advocates and aides said his views on education are much less clear than those of Mr. Hollings.

Representative William H. Gray, 3rd, Democrat of Pennsylvania, is required by House rules to give up the chairmanship of the Budget Committee. Education advocates said they expect no major shift in direction from the likely new chairman, Leon E. Panetta of California.

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