Specter Swims Against GOP Current
When Republicans won control of Congress last year, school lobbyists here expressed hope that GOP moderates would help them defend education programs. It hasn't always worked out that way, especially in the House. But education interests have found a powerful ally in Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
As the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, Mr. Specter drafted a fiscal 1996 spending bill that would include a full $1.5 billion more in education spending than the House-passed version.
And Mr. Specter, a candidate for the 1996 GOP presidential nomination, has become a high-profile defender of President Clinton's Goals 2000: Educate America Act, putting funding for it in his subcommittee's appropriations bill and drafting a proposal to make the program more palatable to critics. (See Education Week, Nov. 1, 1995.)
"Everybody is moved by the political tides to some extent, but he is stronger than most," said Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith. "He has been behind education throughout his career."
These positions cut against the prevailing current at a time when the Republican leadership has placed spending cuts and a balanced budget at the top of its agenda and conservatives are attacking Goals 2000 as an unwarranted federal intrusion into local policy. The program provides school-reform grants to states that agree to set academic standards for their students.
New Hampshire, which holds the first presidential primary, is one of four states that have rejected Goals 2000 money, and Mr. Specter's GOP rivals have joined in denouncing it.
"I think it's a good idea to have standards," Mr. Specter said in an interview this month.
"When you take a leadership position, you have to do what you want to do," he added.
Mr. Specter also noted that he is the only candidate in the GOP presidential pack who wants to keep the Department of Education.
"When the secretary of defense pounds his fist on the table at a Cabinet meeting, I want there to be an education secretary there, too," he said. "And there will be one when I'm president."
Mr. Specter, the son of Russian immigrants, said his advocacy is rooted in his own experience.
"I'm a senator and I aspire to be president, and it's because of education," he said. "Take a look at all the problems in this country, welfare and out-of-wedlock parents, and education is at the base."
Education groups have regarded Mr. Specter as an ally throughout his career.
In 1994, Mr. Specter scored a 57 percent favorable rating for votes on child-related issues from the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund, second among GOP senators to Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont. His votes in the 103rd Congress rated 64 percent on the scorecard issued by the American Federation of Teachers and 68 percent from the National Education Association.
Referring to the appropriations panel's education-spending plan, Jodie Silverman, the press secretary for Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the ranking Democrat on Mr. Specter's subcommittee, said, "I don't know if that was a surprise, but more of a pleasant expectation."
The senators have "always worked very closely together and have similar priorities, and that hasn't changed," she said.
Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the director of government relations for the nea, called Mr. Specter bold for putting education atop his agenda at a time when fiscal austerity is the watchword.
"He certainly led the effort, though he probably had support from others," she said.
The union rewarded Mr. Specter by giving its Republican members in Maine information on his education positions before a presidential straw poll there.
Some observers say that by backing a balanced budget while protecting social programs, Mr. Specter could become a valuable bridge between the GOP and the Democratic minority.
'A Fine Line'
"This is a great spot for him to strut his stuff," said Bill Frenzel, a former U.S. representative from Minnesota who is now a scholar at the Brookings Institute, a centrist think tank here.
"So far, he's doing a wonderful job of dancing delicately on a fine line," Mr. Frenzel, a Republican, said. "But it's awfully easy to fall off either side."
But his centrist leanings may not make the senator, who was a Democrat early in his political career, popular within his party.
"Sen. Specter declared himself an obstructionist when he declared war on the House agen-da," said Jennifer A. Marshall, the education-policy analyst for the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group in Washington. "He's committed to big-government programs."
And while such differences distinguish Mr. Specter from the pack, they have not translated into success on the presidential campaign trail.
In a recent New Hampshire poll, he was sixth, with just 2 percent of respondents saying they would vote for him. Leading the poll with 37 percent of the 536 Republicans surveyed was Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas.