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Conferees Near Agreement on Education Spending for 1993

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WASHINGTON--House and Senate negotiators are expected this week to hammer out a final fiscal 1993 social-services spending bill.

Observers predict little debate over education programs, which are expected to see a modest increase overall. The Senate version of HR 5677 contains $28.5 billion for Education Department programs, compared with $28.9 billion in the House bill and $27.3 billion in 1992.

"We really are pretty close on the education programs,'' said an aide to Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. "And a lot of those will be split or we'll go with the lower number.''

An aide to Rep. William H. Natcher, D-Ky., who is Mr. Harkin's counterpart in the House, said the House and Senate education figures for the most part are separated by "nickel and dime differences.''

For example, the two bills are only $11 million apart on funding for the Chapter 1 compensatory-education program, which will receive more than $6.7 billion under either bill.

They are $1.7 million apart on research accounts, which will surpass $275 million in 1993, and $5.6 million apart on school-improvement programs totaling some $1.6 billion.

While education spending would not reach the $29.2 billion requested by President Bush under either bill, and many programs will not receive enough to keep pace with inflation, education programs have fared better than many other domestic programs in a tight budget year.

However, aides say an across-the-board cut in each program's allocation is possible as conferees scrutinize the bill and see the difficulty in adhering to their overall discretionary spending limits.

Much of any increase in education spending will be soaked up by a $1.46-billion shortfall in the Pell Grant program for 1992, which is likely to be the most contentious education issue in the conference.

Topics of Debate

While the House would like to contribute $704 million to the student-aid program this year to help alleviate the shortfall, the Senate has appropriated only $242 million for that purpose.

How negotiators handle the shortfall will affect other education programs.

Conferees will also have to find another way to raise about $85 million that appropriators planned to save by eliminating Pell Grants to less-than-half-time students and limiting financial-aid officers' discretion. Those provisions were removed by both the House and Senate in floor debate and cannot be restored.

In addition, the conferees must decide the fate of a long list of amendments Senators tacked onto their version of the bill before approving it Sept. 18 by a vote of 82 to 13.

They include provisions that would provide $1.8 million for a New Hampshire school district affected by a military base closure, and deny federal funds to organizations that are trying to convince the Boy Scouts of America to accept gays as members or leaders.

The Senate earlier rejected amendments that would have transferred money from the Defense Department to education and other social-service programs. (See Education Week, Sept. 23.)

Finally, conferees must wrestle with political factors unrelated to education that aides say may affect funding for education programs.

The President has pledged to veto any spending bill that exceeds the requests he made last January, and the Office of Management and Budget maintains that both social-services bills exceed his request--the House bill by $234 million and the Senate bill by $1.8 billion.

Mr. Natcher's aide said he has been holding talks with the O.M.B. on the way they track spending in an attempt to solve the problem. The O.M.B. is "definitely in a mode of trying to help us work this out,'' he said.

In addition, wrangling over abortion could hold up the bill, as it has in many prior years. Mr. Harkin hopes to include language that would continue federal funding of abortions for poor women who are the victims of rape or incest, a provision that has prompted a veto threat. Mr. Natcher opposes abortion and has always resisted such language.

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