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Senate Debate Likely To Shape Education-Funding Bill

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Washington--When House and Senate conferees meet to craft a single social-service spending bill for fiscal 1992, they will have to reconcile two bills that would provide significantly different amounts for education programs.

Just how big the difference will be, however, will not be known until the Senate completes work on its version of the massive funding measure. Floor action could occur this week, but may not take place until September, according to Senate aides.

The version of HR 2707 approved this month by the Senate Appropriations Committee includes $30.3 billion for Education Department programs--an overall increase of nearly 12 percent over the fiscal 1991 allocation of $27.1 billion, but $1.1 billion short of the $31.4 billion provided for education by the House, which approved its bill in late June.

But two senators plan to offer floor amendments that would narrow the gap.

Senator Tim Wirth, Democrat of Colorado, wants to use budget authority that was allocated to the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, but was not included in its fiscal 1992 bill. The panel did use all the outlays--money that is to be actually spent in that fiscal year--that it had to work with. But money appropriated for most education programs is not spent until later years, and so would not be covered by the outlay limit.

Until last week, $997 million in unused budget authority was available, and Mr. Wirth intended to propose devoting almost all of it to education. But then Senator Robert C. Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat who chairs the Appropriations Committee, transferred $400 million to another subcommittee.

An aide to Mr. Wirth said he plans to propose allocating the remaining $577 million to education, as well as $100 million the subcommittee had placed in a contingency fund for use if the Pell Grant program ran short.

The chief beneficiary would be Chapter 1, which would receive considerably less under the existing Senate bill than under the House bill. Mr. Wirth had planned to propose an additional $440 million for the compensatory-education program, and the aide said it would receive at least $300 million in the scaled-down amendment.

The existing Senate bill would provide only a $208-million increase over last year, in marked contrast to the House, which approved a $1-billion increase for the third consecutive year.

Also benefiting from the Wirth amendment would be vocational edu8cation, impact aid, adult education, Pell Grants, Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants, the trio programs, and international higher-education and foreign-language studies. Childhood immunizations would also receive additional money.

Unused Defense Funds Eyed

The other amendment is to be offered by Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who chairs the Labor-h.h.s. subcommittee. Mr. Harkin plans to propose transferring to his bill $3 billion that was appropriated for the Defense Department in fiscal 1991 but was not spent.

Under Mr. Harkin's amendment, the Pell Grant program would receive an additional $270 million, which would boost the maximum annual award by $100, to $2,500.

An additional $150 million would be made available for the Bush Administration's America 2000 education strategy or other new initiatives, which the current bill does not address. Head Start would receive an additional $900 million, while funding for childhood immunizations would rise by $100 million.

The rest of the money would go to health programs and low-income energy assistance.

Mr. Harkin faces a tall obstacle, however, since last year's budget agreement between the Administration and the Congress requires a 60 vote majority to transfer money between defense and domestic accounts. Many members are expected to vote against tampering with the accord.

Moreover, members of the education community prefers Mr. Wirth's approach, because its funding increases would be spread among more education programs. Although they have not opposed the Harkin amendment, education groups have been lobbying heavily for the Wirth amendment.

"We view the amendments as complementary, and in an ideal world both would pass," said Edward Kealy, director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association and current president of the Committee for Education Funding.

"As a coalition, we are working for the Wirth amendment, not the Harkin amendment," he said, because the Harkin proposal "isn't broad enough and doesn't correct the problems in the bill."

A Worrisome Precedent?

Education advocates also criticized the Senate committee bill--and Mr. Harkin--for de-emphasizing education in favor of other programs that were cut by the House bill. The Senate bill includes more than the House measure for impact aid, Head Start, special education, Pell Grants, and education research, but those increases are offset by less funding for bilingual education, vocational education, and Chapter 1.

"We had to put money into family planning and things like that that the House didn't," Mr. Harkin said at the Appropriations Committee markup. "Hopefully in conference we'll be able to approach the House bill."

But he also said the bill reflected his idea that "education has to be thought of as beginning at birth," citing increases for childhood immunization, child care, the special supplemental feeding program for women, infants, and children, and Head Start.

"We need to put more money into early-childhood education and early-intervention programs," Mr. Harkin said. "That's where we'll save money."

The education community views that as a worrisome precedent.

"There's the beginnings here of a social-policy statement that the [Senate] bill makes that by funding early-intervention programs we will then be able to do without federal funds for education programs in kindergarten through college because they'll solve themselves," Mr. Kealy said.

Looking at the bill from a tactical point of view, lobbyists suggested that they may be better off if the Senate delays taking up the spending bill until lawmakers return from their summer recess.

"That's in our favor," Mr. Kealy said. "We'll have that much more time to beat the drums, and if we can make it coincide with the opening of school, so much the better."

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