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The Democrats On House Panel Slow To Regroup

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Washington

When Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., announced his agenda at an organizational meeting of the House education committee on Jan. 4, he outlined a plan of action that had been in the works since the midterm elections that made him the chairman.

The Democrats on the renamed Committee on Economic and Educational Opportunities, however, are only now getting organized for a legislative session in which they will serve as the minority for the first time in their Congressional careers.

"The first thing you're supposed to do when you get knocked down is get back up, and the Democrats are getting back up very slowly," said Bruce Hunter, a senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "The Republicans are off and moving, and the Democrats are watching."

Some observers say the blame rests with Rep. William L. Clay, D-Mo., who is the committee's highest-ranking Democrat.

But others say the Democrats' slow start simply reflects the glacial pace of the party's recovery from the wallop uncorked by the Republicans last November.

"As a party, [the Democrats] haven't yet figured out how to play as a minority," said Patty Sullivan, a senior policy analyst for the National Governors' Association.

And as they face this new political reality, committee Democrats' woes will be compounded by the departure of several aides who helped provide the panel's core of expertise on education.

All of this adds up to tough times ahead for the Democrats, observers say, and the potential for education policymaking to lose its bipartisan sheen.

"For some bipartisanship, you need Democrats involved, and they're not even organized," Mr. Hunter said.

In the Senate, Democratic aides say the transition appears to be going much more smoothly than in the House, in part because most Democratic members and some staff aides on the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources spent much of the Reagan era as a minority party.

They also say the more collegial spirit of the Senate allows for more cooperation among Democrats on the committee and between committee Democrats and Republicans.

"You're going to see very solid agreement among the Democrats," said an aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the committee's ranking Democrat.

Gearing Up

In contrast, Mr. Clay had chaired the House Committee on Post Office and Civil Service since 1991, and is in his first year as the top Democrat on the education panel.

As a longtime member of what was then the Education and Labor Committee, he devoted most of his time to workplace issues and was only a bit player on education matters.

So when Mr. Goodling scheduled his first major hearing on education for last week--designed to examine the federal role--aides to other committee Democrats stepped into the breach and organized strategy meetings. (See related story)

"I've never dealt with a situation like this before," said one Democratic aide. "The organization for this hearing is coming from places other than" the full committee.

"It hasn't occurred to [Mr. Clay] that we're not in power anymore, and we can't be leisurely about things in trying to determine our agenda," said another Democratic aide.

An aide to Mr. Clay reponded that "Mr. Clay recognizes that there are several members of the committee(See education. Eight days into the 104th Congress, he is still in the process of consulting with them on the Democratic strategy and game plan."

Mr. Clay's staff is "not behind" on policy development and is prepared to respond to Republican education initiatives, his aide said.

Other Democratic aides said the panel's Democrats have been slow in getting organized this month because the House Democratic leadership has taken some time planning its first few steps as a minority. In addition, such housekeeping matters as determining the number of Democrats on the committee and who would be the ranking members on the subcommittees--which were reshuffled by the Republicans--prolonged the organizational confusion.

"By the time we do legislative hearings, we'll have a strategy in place," said one Democratic aide.

Enforcing Comity

At the meeting convened by Democratic education aides, the big topic was how to achieve something that has been elusive for Democrats in previous years: togetherness.

In the past, Democrats retained a comfortable majority on the education committee. They were able to accommodate most members' concerns and pet programs and still command enough votes to report out a bill.

Now, the Democrats will need unity if they are to challenge the panel's G.O.P. members, who may attempt to consolidate, rewrite, or cut education programs.

"The real challenge is going to be determining the most common theme among the Democrats," said a Democratic aide.

Perhaps one of the most difficult problems facing the committee's Democrats is the loss of critical education aides.

Instead of about a dozen education specialists on the committee and subcommittee staffs, Mr. Clay will have one aide devoted to education--June Harris, a veteran of the committee--and two other education specialists who will be assigned to the two education subcommittees.

"What I see left is June Harris; June against the world," said Mr. Hunter of the A.A.S.A.. "I hope she's prepared for 24-hour days and has a long sword."

The committee's former education counsel, John F. Jennings, who spent 27 years with the panel, left to form the Center for National Education Policy, an education think tank located here. He took Diane Stark, a legislative assistant who specialized in education, with him.

Omer Waddles, the staff director for the former Subcommittee on Postsecondary Education and Training, and Susan Wilhelm, the staff director for the former Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education, have joined the Education Department.

Mr. Jennings and Ms. Stark announced their plans to leave before the November elections, but the decisions of Mr. Waddles and Ms. Wilhelm are more recent. Indeed, Ms. Wilhelm announced hers just last week.

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