In Congress, Key Policy Votes May Hinge on Timing

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With fall elections looming, members of the House and Senate have begun the year facing a full plate of unfinished education business, as well as the prospect of new school initiatives.

House education aides already are anxious for the Senate to pass several pieces of education legislation that the upper chamber did not have time to consider last year. Vocational education, job training, and literacy bills, and a bill to amend the federal charter school law, are all awaiting action in the Senate Labor and Education Committee.

John F. Jennings

Both chambers also have the Higher Education Act reauthorization ahead of them in coming months, raising speculation that votes on some issues may be postponed until after the November elections. In addition, members will also hold hearings to consider President Clinton's plan for voluntary national tests of the nation's 4th and 8th graders and any further initiatives from the White House and members of Congress.

Mr. Clinton already has spoken about new proposals for aid to poor districts, teacher recruitment, school construction, and child care. ("Budget News Is Sweet for Education Insiders," in This Week's News.)

All in all, a lot of work for a session likely to be cut short by the 1998 election cycle, many congressional aides and observers agree.

Even so, the election season actually may help push school-related bills through the Senate, according to one Capitol Hill aide. Education issues are expected to be at the forefront of many campaigns, and lawmakers will feel pressured to pass bills that could appeal to their constituents, said Joe Karpinski, the spokesman for the Senate committee.

Working Together

The Senate historically has taken longer to pass legislation. And, with the Senate's lack of action last year on some education matters, one House aide is worried that the chamber will run out of time to consider all of the school bills that likely to be on the agenda.

Sen. Slade Gorton

"We very much want to work with them to get things done," said Vic Klatt, the education policy coordinator for the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "It's very clear to us that we have our work cut out for us."

But Mr. Karpinski said he expects the Senate to have enough time to pass the leftover legislation along with any new proposals. Senate aides began work on the HEA reauthorization several months ago and expect the bill to move quickly, he added.

Several bills, including the Reading Excellence Act--a Republican-sponsored measure to enhance elementary school students' literacy skills-- and a measure that would increase federal funding for charter schools, only reached the Senate from the House shortly before Congress recessed in November, Mr. Karpinski said. Both chambers return from that recess later this month to start the second session of the 105th Congress.

"It's unreasonable to think that they're going to send us over legislation the week before recess and that we're going to get it passed by recess," he said.

But the House will also have plenty of education issues to keep it occupied, said Jay Diskey, the spokesman for Republicans on the Education and the Workforce Committee. "It's really mind-boggling how much the House and Senate will have to deal with and respond to," he said.

John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington research group, and a former aide to House Democrats, speculated that some senators may be worried that Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., will again attempt to attach language to education bills that would turn most federal education funding into block grants.

Block Grant Concerns

Mr. Gorton successfully added such an amendment to the fiscal 1998 appropriations bill, but it was removed during a House-Senate conference committee. Mr. Gorton has vowed to bring back the provision. ("Block Grant Compromise Put Forward," Oct. 10, 1997.)

Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., who chairs the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, did not back Mr. Gorton's proposal last year. But it has received the endorsement of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.

"There is a justifiable concern that anything that appears on the Senate floor with [the block grant language] could pass," Mr. Jennings said. "In one fell swoop, you could have $10 billion or more of federal aid rearranged on a floor amendment."

Mr. Karpinski denied that Mr. Jeffords delayed consideration of education issues last fall because of the block grant threat. He said the committee can take up any education bills this year.

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