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House, Senate Negotiators Close In on '96 Budget

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House and Senate negotiators were close to an agreement late last week on a 1996 spending bill that would essentially set federal school aid at 1995 levels for the remainder of the current fiscal year.

House Republicans, who grudgingly accepted Senate spending levels for education and other social programs, also abandoned a contentious school-voucher proposal for the District of Columbia and their plan to make some school aid contingent on a balanced-budget deal with the White House.

"At some point we have to govern, and the fact of the matter is that you have to find common ground," said Rep. John Edward Porter, R-Ill., the chairman of the House appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education.

Republicans had hoped to wrap up the bill on March 29, the expiration date of a temporary spending bill that was funding a number of federal agencies, including the Department of Education. But Democratic demands for further spending and policy concessions threatened to derail that effort.

Lawmakers were poised last week to extend the temporary spending law by three weeks, in case they did not adopt a final plan over the weekend. Congress is to begin a two-week recess this week.

Testy Debate

After two days of testy debate marked by GOP infighting as well as partisan feuding, negotiators tentatively agreed in the wee hours of last Friday to funding levels approved by the Senate earlier. (See Education Week, March 27, 1996.)

Overall, the conference proposal would give the Education Department $24.1 billion in discretionary spending, compared with $24.5 billion in fiscal 1995. That is a full $3 billion more than the House proposed last fall.

"Given where we started at the beginning of the fiscal year, this is a giant step forward," said Violet Boyer, the president of the Committee for Education Funding, a coalition of education groups here.

In response to White House demands, some school programs would get more money under the conference report than under the Senate bill, and some would have higher allocations than in fiscal 1995, which ended Sept. 30.

For example, bilingual education would receive $175 million, compared with $150 million under the Senate bill. That program's 1995 appropriation was $207 million. And $48 million would be allocated for education-technology programs, $13 million more than in the Senate bill and $25.5 million more than was spent in 1995.

But conferees rejected the administration's request for an additional $66 million for the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act and an additional $22 million for the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which would bring their funding to 1995 levels. Lawmakers also refused to add more funds for the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, which would receive $340 million under the conference plan, $22 million below the original Senate proposal but $95 million more than in 1995.

Funding for the Title I remedial-education program, the subject of heated exchanges among Republicans, would be set at $7.2 billion, the same as fiscal 1995, but $100 million below the Senate level.

"The House has come a long way on this. I don't know how much you could expect from us," Mr. Porter told his Senate colleagues.

Last fall, the House proposed cutting Title I spending by $1.1 billion from 1995 levels.

Throughout three days of negotiations, Republicans sought to forge a bill that would be acceptable to their members while also avoiding a veto by President Clinton.

"Let him use the veto, but we have a right to set our priorities," Mr. Porter said.

"I'm sorry, but I thought the idea was to get a presidential signature," said Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., the ranking Democrat on the House appropriations panel.

In the late-night session on March 28, Mr. Obey proposed several amendments to the conference agreement that would have increased education funding. They were defeated on party-line votes.

After midnight, Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, R-Ore., the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, asked conferees working on the education and social-services provisions to come to terms. A group of House conferees met on the morning of March 29 and rejected several amendments, including one that would have hiked Title I aid by nearly $1 billion.

It was unclear whether talks would continue over the weekend.

Ms. Boyer said that a federal budget pact would be a huge relief to states and school districts that have been unable to plan their own budgets for the 1996-97 school year. Though most fiscal 1996 federal school aid does not begin flowing until July 1, some districts have issued layoff notices, she said.

D.C. Reforms

The conference bill does not offer equally good news for educators in the District of Columbia.

The city's long-stalled appropriations finally got clearance from conferees, but only after the vouch-er plan was cut--along with $15 million for school-reform efforts.

The voucher plan would have allowed Washington's City Council to approve using up to $5 million in federal money to help needy families pay tuition at public, private, and religious schools.

It was part of a broad school-reform plan drafted by House members, and voucher proponents had repeatedly threatened to withdraw the whole package if the voucher plan was not included. Last week, they wanted to remove all of the education proposals and introduce them as separate legislation.

"On behalf of the children of the District of Columbia, I can't agree to it ," said Sen. James Jeffords, R-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the District of Columbia. "For God's sake, let's not lose a year."

In the end, conferees included language authorizing the reform efforts other than vouchers, such as an oversight board and charter schools. But they offered no funding.

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