Senate Adds $1.3 Billion in School Aid to Bill
The Senate added $1.3 billion in federal school aid as the chamber moved toward approval of a broad spending package last week, inching Congress closer to wrapping up a grueling fiscal 1996 appropriations cycle.
But the battle is not over, as the Senate plan is a far cry from a companion House bill passed March 7. The House bill would provide $1.8 billion more for the Department of Education than an earlier House bill that included deep cuts in education spending, but $1.4 billion of that would be contingent on a long-term budget deal between Congress and the White House. (See Education Week, March 13, 1996.)
Congress last week extended for one week the temporary spending bill that financed the Education Department and other agencies through March 15. The extension averted a third partial government shutdown and gives lawmakers time to iron out differences between their omnibus spending bills.
During floor debate last week, the Senate amended the bill approved by appropriators March 6, to propose a total of $22.8 billion in discretionary funds for the Education Department. The House plan would provide $21.18 billion, which would rise to $22.56 billion if the "contingency" funds were added.
Discretionary funding in fiscal 1995 was $24.7 billion, but an expected Pell Grant surplus means that the Senate bill would give the agency only $400 million less in actual spending power in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. The gap would be $2.6 billion under the House bill; if that bill's contingency funds became available the cut would narrow to $1.23 billion.
"At this level, it would be acceptable to the administration," Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith said of the new Senate bill. "It's not exactly what we wanted, but Congress has come a long way."
The Senate bill had included a contingency plan similar to the one in the House bill. But the amendment added on the floor replaced contingency funds for education programs with guaranteed appropriations, offsetting the additional spending with fee extensions, federal asset sales, and cuts in other areas.
The Senate increased its proposed funding for the Title I compensatory-education program by $814 million, which would bring the program's budget to $7.3 billion, about $100 million more than last year. The amendment also added $60 million for the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, $200 million for the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, $83 million for vocational and adult education, and $128 million for school-to-work programs, half of which is in the Department of Labor's budget.
"Not everything is restored to the 1995 levels, but most of the programs are sufficiently funded under this bill," said Violet A. Boyer, the president of the Committee for Education Funding, an umbrella lobbying group here.
Only one senator, Judd Gregg, R-N.H., spoke against the amendment, arguing that spending more money will not improve education. Senate Majority leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., and 36 other Republicans joined all 47 Democrats in voting for it, and it passed 84-16.
The amendment, which added a total of $2.7 billion to the Senate's proposed funding for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, was written by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. The two lawmakers, the top-ranking members of the subcommittee that oversees spending for those agencies, negotiated a compromise version of a Harkin proposal that would have added $3.3 billion.
The Senate is expected to pass the bill this week.
"It is a strong bipartisan expression of support for the president's efforts to protect the nation's investment in education," Leon E. Panetta, the White House chief of staff, told reporters.
House Republicans were less conciliatory.
"This is nothing more than an $8 billion stickup," Rep. Bob Livingston, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, told reporters, referring to statements by White House officials that President Clinton would veto the omnibus bill if it did not add $8 billion for his priorities to the original Senate numbers.
"Once again, he's proving that he is the tax-and-spend president," Mr. Livingston said.
He criticized the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program for letting schools spend money on dances and administrative retreats, and for giving grants as low as $13. House Republicans had leveled similar criticism at other education programs during floor debate, arguing that Title I, in particular, is ineffective.
In light of that rhetoric, and the large differences between the House and Senate bills, it is unclear what will emerge from the upcoming conference and whether the product will be acceptable to the president.
But even as their leaders were denouncing Mr. Clinton, 10 House Republicans had signed a letter by midweek urging Mr. Livingston to support the Senate amendment.
"The future of our country is inextricably linked to the quality of education that our children receive," the letter states.
"What has happened with Republicans in general is that they've seen a lot of their efforts backfire," said Amy Schenkenberg, a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank here. "They're going into an election year, and they realize they need to get some legislation done."
Meanwhile, there were mixed signals last week for Mr. Clinton's prized AmeriCorps national-service program.
The Senate bill would spend $386 million on the program. The House bill would offer the same amount, but only if a budget deal is struck. Otherwise, the House would spend $15 million to shut AmeriCorps down.
Mr. Livingston blasted the program for becoming more expensive than anticipated.
But a key AmeriCorps critic in the Senate, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, called a news briefing to announce his conditional support of the program, which comes up for reauthorization this year.
The announcement followed months of talks between Mr. Grassley and AmeriCorps Director Harris Wofford on a plan that, among other features, would lower costs, end grants to federal agencies, expand the number of unpaid volunteers in the program, and increase state autonomy.