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Publicity Fears May Aid Lunch Program in the Senate

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Washington

Fear of more bad publicity is prompting Senate Republicans to back away from the idea of replacing federal child-nutrition programs with block grants to the states, advocates of the programs say.

Two months ago, the Repub~lican-led House drew wails of protest from Democrats, education groups, and child-welfare advocates when it passed welfare-reform legislation that would give states lump-sum payments, or block grants, with which to pay for school lunches and other child-nutrition programs.

That proposal would curb growth in total spending for the programs and remove the guarantee that every eligible child can receive a free or reduced-price meal at school.

Democrats said such a plan would leave children hungry, and the issue made headlines around the nation. (See Education Week, 3/29/95.)

Senators on the Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee are eager to save themselves that kind of political grief, lobbyists said.

At a hearing last month, the com~~~~~~~~mittee's chairman, Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., said he was inclined to keep control of the programs at the federal level. (See Education Week, 5/31/95.)

Ed Cooney, the vice president and deputy director of the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, asserted last week that virtually no members of the committee support the idea of replacing school-meals programs with a block grant.

Similarly, Gene White, the legislative coordinator for the American School Food Service Association, which also opposes the idea, said: "It's looking positive."

But, she added, "a lot of things can happen."

And a spokeswoman for the agriculture committee emphasized that things are "still up in the air."

Presidential Politics?

Their constituents are pressuring senators to maintain federal control of school-meals programs, Mr. Cooney said.

For example, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., a member of the agriculture panel, had a private meeting scheduled late last week in Jackson with school administrators and food-service officials.

Ms. White and Mr. Cooney noted that the Senate committee includes some longtime supporters of farm and nutrition programs.

Indeed, frac has given awards to five of them: the Senate majority leader, Bob Dole, R-Kan.; Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt.; Mr. Cochran; and Mr. Lugar.

"I think the difference here in the quality of the debate hinges on the fact these people know a lot about farm programs, know a lot about nutrition programs, and care about them deeply," Mr. Cooney said.

Mr. Cooney also suggested that Presidential politics are affecting the debate. Both Mr. Dole and Mr. Lugar have announced their candidacies for the 1996 Republican nomination and are presumably eager to avoid being tagged, even if wrongly, as enemies of hungry children.

But the budget-balancing plans that have been approved by both the House and Senate will exert pressure, as well.

Observers said the Senate agriculture committee is working under the assumption that it will have to cut some $28 billion over five years from the farm and nutrition programs over which it has jurisdiction. Lobbyists acknowledged that this could force significant cuts--and perhaps a decision to replace some programs with block grants.

An aide said that Chairman Lugar has not announced a timetable for making a decision on nutrition programs, although observers expect one by the middle of this month. The agriculture committee's contribution would likely be incorporated on the Senate floor into a larger welfare-reform bill.

Action Expected Soon

The Senate Finance Committee approved a bill May 26 that would form the bulk of that legislation. Like the House bill, the plan drafted by Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., the finance panel's chairman, would replace with block grants more than 40 federal programs serving children and families. But the Senate plan, which the committee approved on a 12-to-8 vote with few changes, would place fewer restrictions on how states use welfare funds. (See Education Week, 5/31/95.)

The Labor and Human Resources Committee, meanwhile, unanimously approved provisions May 26 that would preserve federal control of the child-care-development fund, which offers child-care aid to the working poor.

Should the final Senate bill preserve the current school-meals programs, their fate could be decided in a House-Senate conference committee on welfare-reform legislation. If Democrats from both chambers align against the block-grant idea--as they have to date--Senate Republicans agree, the idea would likely die.

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