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Clinton Didn't Pledge Budget Veto, NEA Says

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The National Education Association backed away last week from a lobbyist's earlier statement that President Clinton had promised to protect education spending with a veto threat.

Meanwhile, a key senator said he canceled a budget hearing because administration officials failed to deliver proposals to offset increased education funding with entitlement cuts. On a more positive note, appropriations aides said they were working on what they hope will be the final fiscal 1996 spending bill, which they said would probably not include severe cuts in school programs.

The seemingly incongruent developments were consistent with a confused winter of federal gridlock that has left local school-budget writers uncertain about how much federal education aid to expect in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

Earlier this month, senior NEA lobbyist Dale Lestina said that President Clinton, in a meeting with union officials, pledged to block with a veto any new spending bill that does not hike school funding. (See Education Week, Feb. 14, 1996.)

The continuing resolution now funding the Department of Education and other federal agencies whose 1996 appropriations have been stalled or vetoed expires March 15. If its terms were extended through the end of the fiscal year, it would cut $3.1 billion from the department's fiscal 1995 budget of $32 billion.

Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the NEA's director of government relations, who attended the meeting with Mr. Clinton and NEA President Keith B. Geiger, said last week that the president did not say that he would veto such a bill and was not asked to do so.

A 'Misunderstanding'

Ms. Teasley offered little explanation, however, for the earlier statement.

"In the excitement of the moment, after coming out of the meeting, there could have been a misunderstanding," she said.

Observers said that the misstatement was not well received by administration officials, who are engaged in ongoing budget negotiations.

Mr. Lestina, who was not at the White House meeting, declined to comment. White House officials did not return phone calls asking for their view.

"We discussed the continuing resolution and ... walked through what that would mean to education programs," Ms. Teasley said. "We asked the president to go on the record asking Congress to fully fund education at 1995 levels."

The president said he hoped that the administration could reach a budget resolution with Congress in coming weeks and that he would not have to resort to a veto, according to Ms. Teasley.

Education lobbyists had been encouraged by news of the veto threat.

"The president's proposals for the future are welcome, but if Congress gets away with cutting $3 billion, more initiatives just are not going to happen," said Edward R. Kealey, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, an umbrella lobbying group here.

But vetoing a new continuing resolution could trigger another partial government shutdown.

"He would approach it gingerly," said Jeff Simering, the legislative director for the Council of the Great City Schools, a group that represents large urban districts. "That's what we're afraid of."

Polls indicating public support for education programs should make a veto unnecessary, said Jerry Morris, the director of legislation for the American Federation of Teachers.

"We're shooting for 1995 funds," he said. "The whole engine on the other side that is driving the cuts is clearly in trouble."

In the Works

Congressional aides said that President Clinton may indeed get his way on school aid.

"I can just tell by the mood around here that there won't be severe education cuts this year," a House GOP aide said. "The Republicans just aren't willing to go to the mat on that this year."

House and Senate aides are working on a continuing resolution that would provide funding for the rest of the fiscal year for agencies covered by four stalled appropriations bills, including the Education Department. Overall, the bill approved by the House would cut $3.7 billion from the department's 1995 budget, compared with $2.1 billion in the bill pending in the Senate.

Sen. Arlen Specter, the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, was apparently ready to announce last week an agreement to add $3.3 billion to his panel's bill.

But Mr. Specter indicated that he canceled a Feb. 20 hearing because the White House chief of staff, Leon Panetta, had not come through with promised proposals for offsetting cuts in entitlement programs.

"As soon as you can advise me on the additional funding and the offsets, we shall move ahead promptly to reschedule the hearing," Mr. Specter said in a letter to Mr. Panetta.

Meanwhile, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley scheduled a news briefing Feb. 23 to detail the potential impact on education programs if the terms of the current stopgap bill were extended through the end of fiscal 1996, following similar briefings focused specifically on Title I and drug-free-schools funds. Mr. Riley also planned to release record-high school-enrollment projections for coming years.

Most federal K-12 education aid for 1996 begins flowing July 1.

Washington Editor Mark Pitsch contributed to this report.

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