Nation Ponders Unsettled Presidential Vote

By Joetta L. Sack — November 15, 2000 10 min read

Amid the agonizing delay in identifying the winner of the 2000 presidential election, one thing seems clear: Whoever the next president is, he will enter the White House without a sure direction from the voters and with a Congress nearly split in two along partisan lines.

The combination could make it difficult for either of the two contenders—Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the Republican, and Vice President Al Gore, the Democrat—to push through significant changes in federal education policy, education analysts said last week.

“Both sides were hoping to get a mandate on November 7 ... but regardless of who wins, they can’t ram an agenda down the throats of an unwilling Congress,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, the education policy director for the Progressive Policy Institute.

“The real wild card” is the White House, said Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., who is a contender for the chairmanship of the House education committee. If a Republican-majority Congress is joined by a Republican president, he argued, “that puts tremendous pressure on the other side to take a look at what the president is proposing.”

While the Republicans retain a slim majority in the House and have at least a tenuous control of the Senate, the upshot, most observers agreed, is that members of the next Congress will have to work out bipartisan compromises—or else get nothing done. And the incoming president—regardless of whether it is Mr. Gore or Mr. Bush—will have to learn to work with a sharply divided Congress, they said.

In Mr. Rotherham’s view, that suggests, for example, that Congress and the president will look at revamping education programs to provide more targeted assistance, as opposed to “creating a new program for every problem, large or small.” That’s an approach the Progressive Policy Institute advocated during debate on the still-unfinished reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The institute is the think tank of the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist group currently chaired by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., Mr. Gore’s vice presidential running mate.


As observer after observer talked last week about the importance of compromise in the coming year, they particularly noted that the outgoing Congress failed to pass the ESEA reauthorization largely because of partisan discord. That legislation, as well as major bills on education research and special education, will be considered in the next Congress.

Meanwhile, this fiscal year’s education spending bill, which had not been completed before the elections, faces an uncertain outlook in the lame-duck 106th Congress.

As of late last week, it remained unclear whether the Senate would be split 50-50 on party lines, after the Republicans’ loss of at least three seats. Even under such a scenario, the GOP would likely retain control.

If Gov. Bush prevails in the presidential election, his vice presidential nominee, former Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney, will be able to cast tie-breaking votes in the Senate, giving Republicans the edge there. If Vice President Gore is the winner, Mr. Lieberman will have to relinquish his Senate seat. Gov. John G. Rowland of Connecticut, a Republican, would almost certainly appoint a member of his own party to fill the vacancy.

The Democrats, meanwhile, appeared to have gained at least one seat in the House, but the outcome of some races remained in doubt as of press time last Friday.

Extensive Platforms

Whatever the prospects for passing major new education proposals in the 107th Congress, either Gov. Bush or Vice President Gore will take office after emphasizing extensive education plans on the campaign trail this year.

Mr. Gore, who has the strong support of the national teachers’ unions, has proposed continuing many of President Clinton’s school initiatives, such as providing federal dollars to help schools hire new teachers, undertake construction and renovation projects, and run after-school programs, and to increase funding for higher education grants and loans. The vice president overall has proposed $115 billion in new spending over 10 years on existing and new programs, including an ambitious universal- preschool plan.

Mr. Bush, meanwhile, based his education platform on combining accountability for student achievement with more flexibility in using federal education aid. His plan, which proposes spending an additional $47 billion on education over the next 10 years, also calls for a new program to give federally funded education vouchers to students in chronically failing schools that receive Title I aid. Mr. Gore and the teachers’ unions have repeatedly lambasted that proposal.

The political outlook for vouchers was clouded last week by the resounding defeat of statewide voucher initiatives in California and Michigan. But voucher supporters argue that such proposals remain viable in the legislative arena, both in statehouses and on Capitol Hill.

Isabel V. Sawhill, a senior fellow in economic studies with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said she remained doubtful about the prospects for Mr. Bush’s voucher plan should he become president.

“My guess is that Congress will not necessarily move forward with that idea because, A, the majorities will be very thin and, B, there wasn’t any mandate for it coming out of the election,” Ms. Sawhill said. She suggested that some of the governor’s other ideas, such as block-granting some federal aid, might have more appeal.

On the other hand, should Mr. Gore become president, it’s unlikely that a GOP-led Congress would have much interest in his extensive spending proposals, Ms. Sawhill said. “Although there’s some sympathy for the ideas, I think it would be tough,” she said. Instead, she said, Congress will likely try to use the federal budget surplus for tax cuts and shoring up Social Security.

One veteran Democratic aide held out a gloomy forecast of things to come from his party’s perspective.

“If Bush wins, the only lever of power in the Democrats’ hands is the filibuster in the Senate,” said John F. Jennings, a former aide to Democrats on the House education committee.

“The Republicans [would] have almost a free hand to rewrite the federal role in education,” argued Mr. Jennings, who is currently the director of the Center on Education Policy, a research and advocacy group.

Others see a chance for moderate ideas to prevail in Washington.

“There is an opportunity to get something done if they govern from the center,” said Ted Sanders, the president of the Education Commission of the States in Denver and a former deputy secretary of education in the administration of President George Bush, the Texas governor’s father.

“I think there is a very strongly reinforced educational agenda that could be had by the new president, whether Gore or Bush,” Mr. Sanders said, “and it really builds upon what the governors and legislatures and state policymakers have been trying to lead to and work on for more than a decade.”

Too Close To Call

As of last Friday, the outcome of the presidential race hinged on election results from Florida. Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore needed to win Florida and its 25 Electoral College votes to win the presidential race, which requires a minimum of 270 electoral votes. But a narrow margin of victory for Mr. Bush in the initial counts from the race triggered automatic county-by-county vote recounts.

By last Thursday, Mr. Gore’s campaign had requested a recount by hand of ballots in four counties, and state officials had announced that it would take at least until Nov. 17 before all absentee ballots mailed from overseas were also counted. Meanwhile, the Gore campaign and its supporters signaled their intention to pursue legal challenges to what they see as irregularities in the Florida balloting.

Now, with 10 weeks to go before the Jan. 20 inauguration, whoever finally wins will have to quickly put together a transition team and begin naming Cabinet members.

Gov. Bush, who was trailing by about 200,000 votes in the popular tally as of late last week—but with final results still far from being certified—could enter the presidency at a disadvantage if he proves to be the winner in electoral votes alone, some political commentators say.

But the governor has frequently advertised himself to be a “uniter, not a divider,” which would work in his favor, some Texas observers say.

In Texas, Mr. Bush has lived up to that description, said John Cole, the president of the Texas Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

Mr. Cole last week recalled Mr. Bush’s efforts in the adoption of a comprehensive reading program for the early elementary grades. The governor went out of his way to gather input from a wide array of state officials, educators, and other Texans, and the end product was an extensive, multipronged program that included everything from a system of diagnostic exams to money for teachers to take college classes, Mr. Cole said.

“That is the kind of program you don’t associate with Republicans,” Mr. Cole added.

In addition, the union president said, Mr. Bush refused to give in to demands of staunch conservatives on the state school board during a debate on state curriculum standards.

State Rep. Paul Sadler, the Democrat who chairs the education committee in the Texas House, agreed. He said Gov. Bush had made strong efforts to work with him—in part, out of necessity. Because the Texas legislature meets only 140 days every two years, and at least one chamber has been controlled by Democrats throughout Mr. Bush’s nearly six years as governor, bipartisanship is important to getting things done, Mr. Sadler said.

“If you’re going to be successful in that business, you had to check your partisanship at the door,” he said.

Mr. Sadler added that he was confident that Mr. Bush, if he becomes president, would continue to seek a bipartisan approach to federal legislation, as he did in Texas.

“Absolutely, he’ll make the effort. The question is, whether the other side does,” Mr. Sadler said. “He’s always had a willingness to think through an issue, and see if there’s a better way.”

The Washington Climate

But Washington has a different climate. Congress is in session at least seven months out of the year, and in recent years, philosophical and partisan differences have bogged down important pieces of education legislation, such as the ESEA.

Mr. Gore’s campaign declined to comment last week on how the vice president would work with the GOP-led Congress on education issues if he wins the White House. During the campaign, though, Mr. Gore spoke of compromises he had forged with Republicans during his years in the House and the Senate.

Mr. Rotherham of the PPI speculated that Mr. Lieberman, who has a reputation as a moderate who works well with members of both parties, would likely have a great hand in dealings with Congress on education legislation in a Gore administration.

“When push comes to shove, [Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush] can both work with Congress, and both will realize that they have to,” Mr. Rotherham said. “You could really see Lieberman being a force on this,” he added.

Meanwhile, the National Education Association, a major supporter of Mr. Gore’s campaign and those of other Democrats, focused on other victories last week. Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the NEA’s government- relations director, called Nov. 7 “a good day for public education” because of Democratic victories in the Senate and the defeat of the two voucher initiatives.

Whatever the outcome of the presidential race, she said, the union will try to work with the new administration and Congress. She said she believes either candidate would make public education a top priority and would work to create better programs and to increase funding.

“We’re just waiting on pins and needles,” Ms. Teasley said of the up-in-the-air election results. “But regardless of who wins ... issues around education and children will be a focal point.”

Staff Writers Erik W. Robelen and Bess Keller contributed to this report.

A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2000 edition of Education Week as Nation Ponders Unsettled Presidential Vote