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Clinton Banking on the Political Value of Education Programs

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On the verge of a bruising budget battle with the Republican-controlled Congress, President Clinton in recent weeks has sharpened his rhetoric and increased his focus on education as a critical dividing line between himself and his opponents.

While the Clinton Administration has been touting and defending the President's education agenda for months--ever since G.O.P. plans to dismantle the Education Department and cut its programs surfaced--Mr. Clinton has sought to elevate education as a wedge issue since early June.

That was when the President introduced his proposal to balance the federal budget within 10 years--and began testing the waters for his 1996 re-election bid.

Mr. Clinton "has been standing up for education, as has Secretary [of Education Richard W.] Riley," Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, an umbrella lobbying organization representing about 80 education groups and institutions, said late last month. "But in the last three weeks it's been a drumbeat for education."

Setting Stages

This strategy was evident on June 7, when representatives of 98 schools visited the White House to be honored for their efforts under the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities program.

When Congress sent the President a $16.4 billion spending-rescissions bill for fiscal 1995 on the eve of the annual ceremony, officials decided to use the event to highlight his veto of the measure. The bill would have cut $884 million from education programs--including nearly one-half of the $482 million that will be handed out under the anti-drug program this year.

The House late last month approved a modified bill that would trim $600 million from education programs in the current fiscal year. Mr. Clinton pledged to sign it, but Senate leaders were forced to pull the bill from consideration when two Democratic senators threatened a filibuster. (See related story.)

A week after his veto of the rescissions, Mr. Clinton introduced his plan to balance the budget in 10 years. He called for across-the-board reductions of 20 percent in discretionary spending in all areas except(See ducation and defense.

"My budget [has] five fundamental priorities," the President said in a televised address on June 13. "First, because our most important mission is to help people make the most of their own lives, don't cut education."

And on June 21, Mr. Clinton used another ceremonial White House event--with a captive audience of 800 students, parents, and teachers--to further draw distinctions between his budget proposal and the plans offered by Congressional Republicans.

"My proposal would not have big tax cuts for upper-income people who are doing pretty well in our economy today and don't really need them. We would save that money and put it back into education and into medical care for the elderly," he said at the gathering, an annual event honoring 141 Presidential Scholars. "Those are the two principal differences."

Mr. Clinton said his budget would increase spending on education and training by $40 billion over seven years, while the Congressional plan calls for cutting spending in those areas by $43 billion over the same period.

Mr. Clinton also cited language in the then-pending House and Senate budget plans calling for cuts in spending on Head Start, the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, and student financial aid.

"We are beyond the question of who's for and who's against a balanced budget ... the question is how do you get there," Mike McCurry, the President's spokesman, told reporters after the ceremony. "The President has made a commitment to put investments in education right in the center of a long-term economic strategy that leads to a balanced budget."

Mr. Clinton cannot veto the Congressional budget; the final resolution approved June 30 is an internal blueprint that sets spending levels for large categories of programs. Appropriators are set to begin work this week on legislation that will decide the fate of particular programs. (See related story

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