Negotiators Race To Wrap Up Appropriations Legislation

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With a flurry of last-minute dealmaking, Congress was moving toward passing its best attempt at a noncontroversial education spending bill last week and sending new literacy legislation to the White House.

At press time on Friday, in the final hours of a continuing resolution to keep the government operating past the start of the new federal fiscal year on Oct. 1, lawmakers and staff aides worked overtime to wrap up yet another unusual budget-writing process. Their hope was to adjourn over the weekend to return to their districts and campaign in the crucial last weeks before the Nov. 3 midterm congressional elections.

"Education may not be the fight everyone has been predicting. It may wind up with a whimper rather than a bang," said Andrew Rotherham, a legislative specialist with the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

Congress was expected to pass an omnibus spending bill that would include the Department of Education's fiscal 1999 funding. And, although the House also voted last Thursday to begin a formal impeachment inquiry against President Clinton, Mr. Rotherham speculated that Democrats would have a strong bargaining stance in appropriations because GOP leaders were anxious to adjourn and shift their attention to the elections.

Recent polls show that Republicans have the potential to gain five or more seats in the Senate, giving them the 60 votes needed to stop a filibuster, the minority party's best defense against legislation they oppose. With many House races neck and neck, Republican members were also particularly antsy to get off Capitol Hill to campaign.

Rushed Negotiations

Late last week, congressional Republicans met with the White House chief of staff, Erskine B. Bowles, to hash out details of the education budget and find a compromise plan that Mr. Clinton would be willing to sign.

Education lobbyists predicted that the Education Department could win significant funding hikes in the last-minute deals, adding as much as $3 billion to its $34.72 billion total budget for fiscal 1998. Controversial amendments that would create vouchers for Washington students from low-income homes and give administrators more leeway in disciplining disruptive disabled students also were set to be dropped.

Tom Scott, a spokesman for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said Ms. Murray was negotiating to increase Title I funding by up to $1 billion, from its $8.02 billion appropriation in fiscal 1998. The increase would be targeted toward cutting class size in Title I schools.

Separately last week, Congress approved reauthorizations of Head Start and the main federal vocational education law, and President Clinton signed the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act into law.

The move to pass the Reading Excellence Act, a GOP-backed bill that would emphasize teacher training and instructional practices, had been talked about for months but received a boost in the appropriations negotiations. Although Congress missed a self-appointed July 1 deadline to approve literacy legislation, negotiators continued behind-the scenes work last week to write a compromise bill. ("Time Runs Out for Literacy Legislation," July 8, 1998.)

Jay Diskey, a spokesman for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said members had received assurances from Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., that the reading bill would receive about $250 million in the fiscal 1999 appropriations bill. The committee's chairman, Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., was the chief sponsor of the Reading Excellence Act.

But Mr. Goodling and other House Republicans also attempted to use the reading bill as a bargaining chip with White House budget negotiators last week, saying they would not fund the measure unless the appropriations bill included a ban on Mr. Clinton's proposed national tests.

The Education Department, offered wholehearted praise for the Goodling measure.

The compromise reading bill, HR 2614, would authorize $520 million over two years; offer competitive grants to states, which in turn would give the money to districts to provide teacher training and operate tutoring programs and other literacy programs; and allow states to retain up to 15 percent of their grants to pay for "tutorial assistance grants" for schools to provide after-hours assistance to children who needed extra help learning to read.

Vol. 18, Issue 7, Page 24

Published in Print: October 14, 1998, as Negotiators Race To Wrap Up Appropriations Legislation
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