Conservatives Succeed in Killing Omnibus Education Bill

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WASHINGTON--Despite the Bush Administration's backing of omnibus education legislation, the measure died when the Congress adjourned Oct. 27 at the hands of several conservative Republican senators who were successful in blocking its passage.

In the end, according to Senate aides and Administration officials, provisions allowing federal funding of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards were the biggest sticking point, but not the only one.

The stage was set for a final showdown in the Senate when lawmakers reached an agreement with Administration officials the week of Oct. 22.

Under the accord, the Administration agreed to support the package, including the teacher-board provisions. For their part, lawmakers agreed to reduce the cost of the plan and to drop provisions that would have established an education-goals monitoring panel and mandated certain funding levels for Pell Grants. (See Education Week, Oct. 31, 1990.)

President Bush's education initiatives, literacy programs, and teacher-training programs made up the bulk of the legislation.

The Senate was to consider the bill first, to allow the House time to act on any amendments. But negotiations dragged on, and the House took up the bill on the afternoon of Oct. 26, giving it unanimous approval.

Senator George J. Mitchell of Maine, the majority leader, attempted to bring it up for consideration the following afternoon, but met an objection from Senator Jesse A. Helms, Republican of North Carolina, who noted that the bill would authorize spending "$800 million of the taxpayers' money."

Lobbying continued for several more hours, and the House took up the bill again to add amendments designed to placate the opposing senators.

One provision, for instance, specified that a proposal allowing school districts to receive waivers of federal regulations in exchange for performance agreements could not allow federal funding of school-based health clinics.

But as the evening wore on, it became apparent that a week of lobbying by Administration officials and colleagues had failed, and proponents began to eulogize the bill on the Senate floor.

"The losers tonight are going to be the children of America," said Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee.

In the end, it was the rules of the Senate that killed the legislation. Business is rarely transacted there without the "unanimous consent" of all the senators, and even one stubborn lawmaker can prevent action.

In this case, according to Senate aides and Administration officials, six to eight conservative Republican senators dug in their heels.

Senators need not publicly reveal that they are holding up a bill, but Senator Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming identified himself as one of the holdouts. Others mentioned by observers were Daniel R. Coats of Indiana and Gordon J. Humphrey of New Hampshire.

Some observers characterized Mr. Helms as the ringleader, and several senators pointedly denounced Mr. Helms on the floor, noting that he had been the sole "no" vote on more than one major education bill.

Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican on the Labor and Human Resources Committee, protested that Mr. Helms had removed his "hold" from the bill weeks earlier. An aide to Mr. Helms had said earlier that the Senator had agreed to do so in exchange for language barring the teacher board from establishing certification requirements for private-school teachers or home schoolers.

Some Congressional aides and Administration officials said they think the bill could have passed without the teacher-board provi but others think the opponents would still have blocked it.

A key Republican Senate aide noted that opponents also feared unforeseen results from the "deregulation" proposal and objected to some teacher-training provisions for some of the same reasons they objected to funding for the teacher-standards board.

Observers said the conservatives fear that giving a federal imprimatur to the board would be "a step down the slippery slope" toward national teacher-licensing standards, which they view as threatening to private schools and home schoolers, as well as to the notion of local control of education.

The Republican aide said some opponents argued that "professional development" programs for teachers and initiatives to help teachers transfer between states could lead in the same direction.

Victor F. Klatt, director of legislation for the Education Department, noted that opponents also objected to new spending.

"A lot of them have problems creating more federal programs just from a philosophical standpoint," he said.

Some Democratic aides faulted the Administration for not working hard enough to pass the bill.

"I can't believe a call from the President would not have done the trick," one aide said.

But Administration officials noted that many of them were lobbying hard, including Roger B. Porter, the President's chief domestic-policy adviser.

"Everyone knew the President wanted this bill," said Charles E.M. Kolb, deputy director of domestic policy.

Mr. Kolb suggested that House Democrats deserve much of the blame because partisan squabbling Education and Labor Committee prevented the House from acting on its bill until July and resulted in the large package that eventually took shape.

The Senate approved a bill more closely resembling the President's original bill in 1989, and had planned to consider literacy and teacher-training legislation separately.

Most observers said it is highly unlikely that the package will be revived in the same form, but all agreed that many of its provisions will resurface in the next Congress.

Despite its controversial nature, most agreed that the teacher-board proposal is likely to reappear because its supporters are both adamant and powerfully positioned.

The Administration is expected to push the President's proposals again, and Senator Jeff Bingaman, the New Mexico Democrat who is the chief backer of a national-goals panel, said he is committed to that idea. Many of the teacher-training provisions could become part of legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act.

A Republican House aide said Representative Steve Bartlett, Republican of Texas, will try again to create a program to fund parental-choice initiatives, and that the "deregulation" proposal may have enough support to be revived--even if its sponsor, Representative Peter P. Smith, Republican of Vermont, loses his tight election battle.

But several observers speculated that the upcoming change in leadership on the House Education and Labor Committee could make agreement on an education package more difficult. They noted that Representative William D. Ford, the Michigan Democrat who is to replace Augustus F. Hawkins of California as chairman, is considered more sharply partisan than his predecessor.

Vol. 10, Issue 10

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