Negotiations Continue On Ed. Dept. Budget
A dramatic funding increase proposed for the Department of Education was still in question late last week, as the White House and Republican leaders in Congress struggled to reach agreement on four unfinished spending bills.
Republicans were signaling that they would insist on lower spending levels than had been negotiated before the November elections by congressional appropriators and the Clinton administration for the budget bill that covers the Education Department.
At press time last Friday, that department and several other government agencies operating without final fiscal 2001 spending plans were kept running by a continuing budget resolution set to expire Friday night. If a deal was not reached by then, another such resolution was expected to be approved to carry the agencies through Dec. 11. President Clinton met twice last week with congressional leaders to discuss budget matters and other unfinished legislation, but both sides were still unable to find a meeting of the minds.
"They discussed a full range of budget issues," a White House aide said of the second meeting, held Dec. 7. "It helped narrow some of the issues, but differences still remain, especially on education." The aide, who asked not to be named, added: "There's lots of work left."
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., expressed optimism in remarks on the Senate floor following the meeting that the budget issues could be resolved before the end of this week. "It will take a lot more work, but we are making some progress in that direction," he said.
If both sides are ultimately unable to reach agreement, the matter could be passed over to the new president and the 107th Congress to decide.
In late October, the White House and congressional appropriators hammered out a deal for the spending bill covering the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. The plan would have increased education spending by an unprecedented $7.9 billion in fiscal 2001, bringing the discretionary total for the Education Department above $43 billion for the budget year that began Oct. 1.
That agreement contained spending increases for a range of federal programs, including more money for special education and the president's prized program to hire 100,000 new teachers to help reduce class sizes.
But the agreement was scuttled by Republican leaders, citing concerns about a measure unrelated to education involving workplace safety. ("Congress Delays Education Budget Decision," Nov. 8, 2000.)
Lawmakers decided to postpone a final agreement until after the Nov. 7 elections, but the Florida electoral dispute that clouded the outcome of the presidential race complicated matters.
Increasingly confident that Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the Republican nominee, would ultimately be declared the winner, GOP lawmakers were arguing last week that overall spending in the Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill needed to come down, from an $18 billion increase over the fiscal 2000 level to about $12 billion. The increase for the Education Department that was agreed to in October itself exceeds what President Clinton originally proposed early this year and what the Senate and the House passed.
Mr. Clinton has made completing work on the education budget, and protecting a large increase in spending, one of his top priorities, though he also indicated that he might be willing to make a minor reduction. It was unclear late last week which specific cuts would be on the table.
While many Republicans have indicated a willingness to negotiate and resolve the budget dispute, rather than putting it off for the next Congress and administration, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, a leader among conservatives, last week took a far more confrontational stand, daring the White House to shut down the government if it would not agree to reduce spending. In fact, Mr. DeLay has suggested that Congress pass a long- term "continuing resolution" that would maintain spending for programs in the four unfinished spending bills at the fiscal 2000 level for the duration of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, 2001.
Emily Miller, a spokeswoman for Mr. DeLay, said the majority whip was trying to prevent President Clinton from forcing through a "massive spending increase."
Asked about the potential for a government shutdown, White House spokesman Jake Siewert said last week that he did not see it as a possibility.
"We think that there is work to be done, and we are intent upon getting it done," he said. "And I might point out that there's a lot of talk about bipartisanship up on [Capitol] Hill in the wake of the election."
Vol. 20, Issue 15, Pages 31-32