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Education's Prospects Uncertain in Budget Summit

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Washington--Congressional leaders last week agreed to open full-scale budget negotiations with President Bush and Administration officials that could lead to a compromise agreement on federal spending and deficit reduction.

Both sides said early in the week that the talks were to occur with no "preconditions," meaning that any proposal, including a tax increase, is to be open for discussion.

But White House officials and Congressional Republicans were quick to restate their opposition to new taxes, leaving Democrats wary of being stuck with the political blame for an agreement that includes taxes.

Susan Frost, executive director of the Committee for Education Fund4ing, said it is hard to predict what effect a summit will have on education spending.

An agreement between the Administration and Congressional leaders is likely to provide less for education than a budget hammered out by the Congress, she said, noting that summit negotiators would not discuss education specifically, only as part of the huge category of discretionary domestic spending.

"The only thing we can go on is past experience, and our most recent experience is a summit that brought us a partial sequester," or automatic budget cuts under the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction law, Ms. Frost said.

"I don't think we can be overjoyed" about a summit, she said, "because we've seen, at the White House's insistence, the nondefense discretionary programs take a big hit."

But if the Congress fails to come up with a package meeting deficit-reduction targets or finds itself deadlocked with the President, the result could be a full-scale sequester, many predict.

And Administration officials said last week that higher-than-expected interest rates and slowed economic growth will push the deficit higher than expected, requiring as much as $100 billion more in cuts and revenue increases to reach the Gramm-Rudman target.

Officials say the President, who initiated the talks by inviting key lawmakers to the White House May 6, was motivated by the new projections.

Congressional sources contend that lawmakers' ability to agree on their own budget proposals--until recently doubted by many observers--is also a factor.

The House passed a budget May 1 that would provide a $2.5-billion increase above inflation for education programs, while the Senate Budget Committee approved its spending plan May 2.

Details of what the Senate blueprint would mean for education programs remained elusive last week, but it would provide $1.7 billion less in budget authority for the category that includes education than would the House plan.--jm

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