Congress, Near Accord On Pell Boost for 2002, Dragging Feet on 2003
And President's Fiscal 2003 Proposals
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Congress is one step closer to injecting an extra $1 billion into the Pell Grant program to help remedy a shortfall this fiscal year, even as federal lawmakers struggle to get the budget process moving for the upcoming year.
The Senate last week approved a $31.5 billion emergency spending bill for fiscal 2002, which began last Oct. 1. The legislation matches the $1 billion the House passed earlier for Pell Grants, which help low-income students pay for college.
But there's a catch. The House's supplemental spending bill would cover the increase through offsetting changes elsewhere in the budget; the Senate, by designating the funds as "emergency" expenses, would require no offsets.
The White House isn't buying the "emergency" label. In a June 4 statement, the Office of Management and Budget said Congress should work with the president to identify offsets "to finance this and any other nonemergency activities that have not been fully paid for in the bill."
That is just one of many complaints the White House has with the Senate bill, prompting a veto threat from President Bush.
Department of Education officials have said the faltering economy and an increase in students pursuing higher education led to the shortfall in the $10.3 billion Pell Grant program. Congress raised the maximum award to $4,000, but didn't provide enough money to pay for it. ("Bush Proposal Stokes Student-Aid Spat With Democrats," May 8, 2002.)
Not satisfied with the Pell Grant money alone, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and several other lawmakers proposed $150 million in "emergency" spending for summer school programs.
But that proposal, appended to a bill intended to address issues related to Sept. 11, didn't fly even with some other Democrats. The proposal was soundly rejected on a procedural vote.
With competing versions of the supplemental spending bill now passed by both chambers—the House bill has $28.8 billion in spending—lawmakers must now work out a compromise.
Meanwhile, Congress is still struggling to jump-start the budget process for fiscal 2003. None of the 13 spending bills that finance government agencies has been approved by either chamber.
And the Democratic-controlled Senate appears unlikely this year even to pass a budget resolution, the spending blueprint that guides tax and spending bills. The Senate Budget Committee narrowly approved a Democratic bill in March, but the party's leaders in the chamber have concluded they lack sufficient votes to get it through the Senate. In effect, the Senate still has not agreed how much cash appropriators will be able to spend.
Add to that the recent proposal by President Bush for the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, which Congress has promised to make a top priority, and the already tortoise-like budget process could be headed for snail territory.
"I wouldn't call it gridlock, but there's definitely a traffic jam," said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, an umbrella group that lobbies for federal spending on education.
Some analysts say the lack of a budget resolution may not be a major problem, as long as Congress can agree on an overall figure for discretionary spending. But that's no simple matter.
The top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Budget Committee had struck a deal earlier this month that would have set a $768 billion ceiling. That level was to be codified in an amendment to the emergency spending bill. But the sponsors, lacking sufficient support, withdrew the measure.
Bill Hoagland, the GOP staff director on the Senate Budget Committee, said the figure was specifically tied to a set of agreements on other budget issues in the emergency spending bill, and is not necessarily still in play.
Even if it had been agreed to, the proposed Senate level for discretionary spending was about $20 billion above what was recently agreed to in the Republican-controlled House, though the House voted to authorize another $10 billion for military spending if it becomes necessary.
Congressional aides and lobbyists say it's too early to predict what kind of final spending figure the Education Department will get, though some have suggested it may be wishful thinking to expect an increase of the magnitude seen the past two years. Last year, the budget grew by $6.7 billion or about 16 percent.
Mr. Bush has proposed a fiscal 2003 increase of $1.4 billion, or 2.8 percent, for the department, which would bring spending to just over $50 billion. That proposal, made in February, does not reflect the potential $1 billion increase in current-year spending contained in the supplemental bill.
The president's recommended education spending level is reflected in the House budget resolution. By contrast, the moribund budget blueprint approved along party lines by the Senate Budget Committee would lift the education total by $6.8 billion.
Vol. 21, Issue 41, Page 26