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Big Spenders

When Republicans offered a $3.5 billion increase for education programs last year, some people thought they had seen it all.

But when it comes to special education funding, some Senate Republicans this year seem to be trying to outdo their Democratic colleagues.

Take Sen. Judd Gregg, for example. The New Hampshire Republican recently proposed increasing federal funding under the nation's main special education law by $10 billion over seven years, three times the increase budgeted last year.

And at a Senate committee hearing last week on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, one conservative Republican chastised a liberal Democrat for penny-pinching.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, one of the IDEA's most ardent supporters, said he thought the law was unfairly characterized as an unfunded mandate. "It is a grant program to school districts to help them meet their constitutional requirements," he told the packed hearing room.

But Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., took the opportunity to accuse Mr. Harkin of trying to pass the tab to the states. "No matter how you define unfunded mandate, the federal government has not done its share," Mr. Coats said.

Sen. Harkin quickly said he gladly supports a big increase in IDEA funding.

"We have promises to keep, and that's one of them," he said.

Greet & Run

For all its formality, Washington is not a place where you can depend on prominent officials to show up on time.

But Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., created a ruckus last week by showing up nearly an hour early to accept an award from the National School Boards Association, and then leaving early to boot.

The NSBA invited several well-known members of Congress and the Clinton administration to receive awards and speak to the organization's 700 members of its federal-relations network who met here last week.

Mr. Specter, a key player in last year's budget negotiations, was slated to speak at 6:30 p.m., taking the stage after Sen. John Chafee, a Republican colleague from Rhode Island.

But at 5:45 p.m., after some confusion, Mr. Specter took the stage along with Mr. Chafee, kindly accepted his award, told a few stories about his family, joked about working with Mr. Chafee, and the two promptly left. To deal with the awkward moments that followed, the delegation ended up socializing without their guest of honor.

--JOETTA L. SACK [email protected]

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