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5,500 E.D. Employees Back on Job as Talks Continue

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About 5,500 Department of Education employees returned to work last week, ending a 24-day shutdown that began with an impasse over the federal budget and was extended for three days by a blizzard. But federal officials are no more certain about the future of the education programs they run than they were before the closing.

Republican congressional leaders have said they do not intend to again shut down the Education Department and other agencies without fiscal 1996 appropriations when their current stopgap budget expires Jan. 26. But President Clinton and lawmakers sent mixed signals last week on the status of their efforts to negotiate a long-term federal budget plan.

"A historic agreement on a balanced budget is within reach," the President said Jan. 11 in a nationally televised news conference. "We've come too far to let it slip away."

"I think that the odds are better than ever today that there will be no agreement," Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said at a fund-raiser in Wyoming. "It may literally be that the Clinton administration cannot agree to the kind of decentralization and lower spending and lower taxes that we represent."

While the administration and Republicans have moved closer on many budget numbers, gaps remain on issues such as spending for education and the environment and the lawmakers' proposed welfare reforms and tax cuts.

On Jan. 5, Republicans gave up on their strategy of using the partial government shutdown to pressure Mr. Clinton on broader budget issues, and passed a targeted appropriations bill and a continuing resolution. The measures allowed federal employees to return to work as of Jan. 8, and provided fiscal 1996 funding for selected programs for all or part of the fiscal year.

A small group of Education Department workers had already been making payments under programs still spending 1995 funds. But no funding was available for such programs as impact aid, and officials said they would not be able to perform all their duties. (See Education Week, Jan. 10, 1995.)

However, other provisions in the bills allowed the government to fully reopen--temporarily--if Mr. Clinton submitted a seven-year balanced-budget plan using figures approved by the Congressional Budget Office, as GOP lawmakers had required. The president did so after signing the bills.

Under the stopgap measures, education and other programs without 1996 appropriations are be funded only through Jan. 26, at whichever of these levels is the lowest: spending proposed by pending House and Senate appropriations bills, or fiscal 1995 funding. Programs slated for elimination in 1996 are temporarily fund- ed at 75 percent of 1995 spending.

While GOP leaders said they have no interest in another shutdown, it was unclear what strategy lawmakers would pursue in the absence of a deal with Mr. Clinton. Aides said they had resumed talks on differences between a House-passed 1996 spending bill for education and a Senate version that is stalled over legislative riders.

"Without knowing what the vehicle is or the funding level, it is difficult to do anything," said a GOP Senate aide. "We can have all the discussions you want, but things can change in a heartbeat around here."

'Day of Reunion'

For a while last week, though, the budget battle took a back seat to a homecoming and the whims of Mother Nature.

"We're back, and it's a wonderful day of reunion," said Sharon P. Robinson, the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, when the Education Department reopened Jan. 11.

"Everyone is eager to clear their desks and move on," said Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith. "The biggest problem is this storm. A lot of people are finding it hard to get in."

And some of the workers were confronted with backlogs of work.

For example, Ms. Robinson said that her staff would work as long as necessary last Thursday to send nearly 100 grant applications for seven new research-and-development centers to reviewers across the country. The application deadline was Dec. 15, which means the process is nearly a month behind schedule.

Bill Kincaid, a special assistant to Mr. Smith, noted that "a significant number" of requests from school districts seeking waivers from rules were pending before the furlough, and more probably arrived during the shutdown.

A backlog of about 100,000 student-aid applications began moving before the end of the furlough after officials got other agencies to begin verifying citizenship status and Social Security numbers.

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