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As Congress returns to work this week, prospects for passage of the Workforce and Career Development bill are dim, congressional observers say.

After nearly an entire session of legislative work, the lack of support for the bill might mean a lull in efforts to consolidate scores of federally supported job-training programs and to give greater control to the states and localities through block-grant funding.

Only a determined push by Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, R-Kan., a leading proponent of HR 1617 and the chairwoman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, and the acquiescence of Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who sets the Senate's calendar, might bring the bill to a vote in that chamber, those following the measure say. (Please see " Lack of Progress Could Imperil Voc.-Ed Bill," May 29, 1996.)

The Senate must pass the bill before the House will consider it.

Senate rules, however, give opponents ample procedural tools to block the bill. When the House-Senate conference committee approved the final bill on July 17, Democratic members led by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts all voted against it.

And conservative groups like the St. Louis-based Eagle Forum, which has likened the bill to centralized economic planning, could turn some Republican legislators, especially in the House, away from it. Then there is the possibility of a veto by President Clinton--the bill would eliminate his pet school-to-work program in 1998--which does little to drum up enthusiasm.

Time is dwindling, as Congress has no more than 17 working days to consider a large number of bills, including defense-appropriations and banking-insurance legislation, before it adjourns on Sept. 28 until after the November elections.

Effort Shows Consensus

Analysts who have followed the bill seem to have already conceded its defeat.

If the two-year effort leading up to the workforce bill, which would reauthorize federal vocational-education programs, has achieved anything, observers say, it highlighted a broad consensus that the nation's patchwork of federally supported job-training programs needs to be streamlined.

Among the bill's benefits, said Ray O. Worden, the executive director of the New Hampshire Job Training Council in Concord, would be to simplify compliance with federal regulations. Mr. Worden, who administers "half a dozen major workforce programs," said he is "constantly wasting money making competing regulations fit together--I was hoping it would reduce the paperwork."

But translating that consensus into a piece of legislation became garbled by the many interests involved, said Vic Klatt, the education coordinator for the House Committee on Economic and Educational Opportunities. Mr. Klatt said he and others working on the bill underestimated just how many groups would want some say in the measure--governors, state legislators, local officials, mayors, school districts, disability organizations, businesses, and labor unions.

The bill became a "massive social reform," Mr. Klatt said, one that is obviously tough to accomplish in an election year.

If the bill dies, Mr. Klatt, a Republican, specifically faults the Clinton administration. He said the administration switched its position "about a dozen different times in the process" and never submitted its own plan.

But he also said business groups "dropped the ball" on the reform effort because "they failed to make their priorities clear on both sides of the aisle and to make their individual congressmen and -women know how important these programs are to them."

Marion Pines, the director of the Center for Social Policy Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, disagreed that business groups were inactive. She speculated that the bill ultimately ran aground on fundamental disagreements over who would control the programs: Democrats generally wanted stronger control at both the federal and local levels; Republicans wanted more control in the hands of governors.

AVA's Role

Nancy O'Brien, an official of the American Vocational Association in Alexandria, Va., said her group, which represents vocational educators, lobbied to ensure specific federal support for vocational education in the bill. She considered it an achievement that the bill would give vocational-education programs separate funding--26 percent of the block grant--that could not be transferred to other activities; it would make similar provisions for adult education. Although she said the level of funding would be too low, "we can survive under this structure." AVA argued that 28 percent would maintain current funding levels.

Howard Rosen, the executive director of the Competitiveness Policy Council, an economic think tank in Washington, sees the bill's declining fortunes as representative of the nation's ambivalent commitment to job training.

Some observers said last week that if the bill falls from the congressional agenda this year, the nation's job-training system might have missed a rare chance to draw the full attention of Congress. Mr. Klatt noted that in the next Congress, the House subcommittee concerned with job training and vocational education is the same panel that will be occupied with the reauthorization of federal higher education programs.

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