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Momentum Builds As Conferees Reach Child-Care Accord

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Washington--Child-care legislation gained unexpected momentum last week as House and Senate conferees reached agreement on a $1.75-billion package that would offer subsidies for low-income families and grants to school districts, bolster child-care training and standards, and expand Head Start.

While members of the House Education and Labor Committee and the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee reconciled most of their differences, they left hanging one of the most contentious issues in the debate: whether federal vouchers may be used to support religious child care.

Rather than settle the question during the conference, panel chairmen indicated last week that House leaders would offer a separate amendment on the issue when the bill reaches the House floor.

Before the measure can proceed, however, a second conference committee of House and Senate tax-writing panels must reach an accord on provisions of the legislation dealing with child-care tax credits and changes in the Title XX Social-Services Block Grant program.

The House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee were expected to meet on those matters this week. It is possible the full child-care package could reach the House floor by week's end.

Lawmakers' preoccupation with deficit-reduction legislation and other high-stakes bills had left many observers skeptical earlier last week that a child-care bill could be passed before the Congress's targeted adjournment date, Nov. 20.

Despite the remaining obstacles, the agreement hammered out by the education panels appeared to improve the bill's prospects.

"This agreement finally puts a federal commitment to affordable, high-quality child care," said Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut and a chief sponsor of the Senate bill. "With prompt action by both chambers, I'm hopeful we can send this bill to the President in a matter of days."

While House conferees made concessions on the Senate's child-care provisions, senators accepted most of the House language dealing with preschool and before- and after-school care.

Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, a chief Republican sponsor of the Senate bill, wanted to allow states to offer "certificates" that would enable parents to choose a child-care provider for school-age children.

But Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, the California Democrat who chairs the House education panel, said such talk would "fall on deaf ears."

The House measure had limited any such vouchers to a portion of the bill providing parents with child-care subsidies for infants and toddlers.

Mr. Hatch backed off the voucher issue after conferees adopted amendments he proposed easing restrictions on how funds would be allocated within a state and permitting school districts to contract with private, for-profit child-care centers as well as nonprofit community organizations.

At the Utah Republican's request, conferees also added a provision that would bar discrimination in Head Start funding for existing programs that do not offer full-day, full-year services. They also accepted a proposal reducing from 50 percent to 20 percent the share of Head Start money that could serve children in families above the poverty line, and lowering the income cap to 125 percent of the poverty line.

Members of the conference panel also adopted an amendment offered by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the Labor and Human Resources Committee, asking districts to "place a priority" on early-childhood-education programs if funding permitted.

But they rejected Mr. Hatch's bid to channel funds for preschool and before- and after-school child care through governors' offices rather than state education agencies.

House Republicans left the conference before the final vote, saying they could not back the bill until they had reviewed the tax panels' work and gauged President Bush's position.

Aides to Mr. Bush have repeatedly signaled that he would veto a bill that did not include tax credits. But it has been less clear whether he would support a bill that combined tax credits with other approaches.

The long-standing church-state issue also remained unresolved.

While the House bill, HR 3, would bar the use of funds for sectarian purposes, the Senate version, S 5, includes an amendment allowing child-care vouchers to be used for religious activities.

House leaders are expected to offer a similar amendment when the conference agreement reaches the floor.

"It's going to be showdown time, because not all Democrats support the Senate language," said Isabel Garcia, a legislative specialist for the National Education Association.

The n.e.a., the American Federation of Teachers, and other education groups strongly oppose the Senate's church-state language.

"We're going to ask Congress to reject any amendment that would allow vouchers for religious worship or instruction," Ms. Garcia said. Such a measure could set a "dangerous precedent" for schools, she said, and "we don't think they have to have that to pass child-care legislation."

Prior to the conference, child-care advocates had voiced dismay that House and Senate leaders, in order to gain concessions on other issues from the White House, had agreed to strip child-care from a budget-reconciliation measure. The advocates warned that a separate child-care bill could lose steam if it is put off until after the recess.

Congressional leaders should "make the same must-pass commitment to families and children as they have made to better-financed political constituencies," said Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund.

"We can't keep waiting until next year," added Representative Patricia Schroeder, Democrat of Colorado.

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