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Distance-Learning Project on Bush's Budget 'Hit List'

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WASHINGTON--As part of an election-year challenge to the Congress, President Bush last week presented lawmakers with a $3.6-billion list of projects he would like to cut from the current federal budget, including one school-related program: an appropriation that would fund a satellite-based environmental-education project.

Administration officials characterized programs on the list as obviously wasteful "pork''--unnecessary or parochial projects funded at the behest of individual lawmakers.

But the Administration appears to have inaccurately described the $400,000 environmental-education grant that made the list.

The reason for seeking to cut the distance-learning project is that it "was not awarded competitively and duplicates another [Environmental Protection Agency] program,'' according to a list provided by the White House.

The appropriation for the program was indeed due to the interest of one lawmaker--Senator Bob Kerrey, Democrat of Nebraska, whose state happens to be heavily involved in distance learning.

But the Administration erred in saying that the Nebraska Department of Education had received the grant, according to a state education official, who said last week that the department had no assurance of receiving the federal money.

In fact, the grant has not been awarded yet, may be awarded competitively, and does not duplicate any other E.P.A. program, according to Chris Rice, the official in the E.P.A.'s environmental-education office who is in charge of the program.

Plan To Force Votes

On March 20, the deadline Mr. Bush had given the Congress for acting on his economic package, he gave an openly partisan address to Republican lawmakers that criticized the Democratic-controlled Congress for blocking his legislative program, mismanaging its internal affairs, and approving an economic package that included a tax increase.

The President said he was vetoing the Democrats' bill and would take the offensive on the issue of federal spending by seeking a host of program "rescissions''--requests for cuts in already-approved spending.

The Congress usually ignores such requests. But Republican members plan to employ a little-known, previously unused portion of a 1974 budget law that allows one-fifth of the House or Senate to force a vote on each project targeted for rescission if the appropriations committees fail to act.

More than 75 percent of the proposed savings from the list drawn up by the White House--$2.8 billion--would come from canceling two nuclear submarines, and another $547.7 million would come from funds allocated for new public-housing construction. The rest of the list comprises small programs--many on such arcane-sounding topics as asparagus-disease research--that were earmarked in appropriations bills by lawmakers steering money to their states and districts.

The Administration's news releases state that programs were chosen because they were inappropriate federal expenditures, duplicative, awarded noncompetitively, or designed for a purpose that has already been achieved.

Tailor-Made for Nebraska?

The distance-learning program targeted by the White House came about when Senator Kerrey persuaded fellow members of an appropriations subcommittee to add a provision to their bill funding the E.P.A. that gave the agency $390,000 "for an environmental-science course by satellite.''

A spokesman for Mr. Kerrey acknowledged last week that the Senator had been inspired by the efforts of his state's education department to find funding to create and disseminate a new environmental-education curriculum.

Nebraska is part of a well-known distance-learning network that includes schools in 23 states, and the proposed curriculum would be offered across the network, said Melodee Landis, the director of the state's educational-technology center.

"The thing that would be wonderful is that it approaches science in a nontraditional way,'' she said, "teaching science in context, taking an investigatory approach.''

Ms. Landis said she did not seek help from Mr. Kerrey's office, but was contacted by an aide who suggested that she apply for an E.P.A. grant. She said she was unaware that the grant was tailored to her project, and she stressed that E.P.A. officials had not promised her the money.

"All I know is I'm having to jump through a lot of hoops for something that's earmarked,'' Ms. Landis said.

Mr. Rice of the E.P.A. said that agency officials have not yet decided whether there should be a competition, or whether the Nebraska program will get the funds without challenge.

"We're looking around to see if there are any other [potential] applicants,'' he said. "We haven't decided what to do.''

Mr. Rice said he was surprised to hear that the project was on the list of proposed rescissions, and said his office had not been approached about the matter before the release of the White House list.

Bush Cites America 2000

With his March 20 speech, President Bush launched what political observers said was an effort to focus public anger at the status quo on the Congress, and thereby deflect it from the Administration.

"Today, looking at the accumulated evidence of several years, it must be said our Congressional system is broken,'' the President said.

Among other remarks, he criticized lawmakers for rejecting most of the Administration's America 2000 education strategy, saying that the Congress had "stripped choice and accountability out of the education bill.''

However, some of the ideas he specifically mentioned are included in altered form in pending legislation, such as funding for innovative schools and provisions related to measuring progress toward the national education goals.

"Job Training 2000,'' a White House initiative Mr. Bush also cited, is an interagency-coordination plan that has not yet been fleshed out or been submitted in legislative form.

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