Lame-Duck Session of Congress to Address IDEA, Budget

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With the elections over, Congress is expected this week to turn to some unfinished business in a lame-duck session, including an overdue spending bill for education and a plan to reauthorize the main special education law.

As of last week, lobbyists and congressional aides were growing confident that lawmakers would wrap up negotiations as soon as this week over a bill to revamp the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which was last updated in 1997.

Both chambers have approved versions of the bill, and a meeting of the House and Senate negotiating teams was tentatively scheduled for Nov. 17 to ratify agreements reached in staff-level talks and to take up any unresolved matters.

“Everything we hear is that they’re very close to finishing,” said Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators, which has urged lawmakers to get the bill done.

Mr. Hunter said he didn’t think the outcome of the elections would alter the final product.

“I just think it means they finish,” he said. “I don’t think it changes the contents of the bill really at all.”

Alexa Marrero, a spokeswoman for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said she was hopeful that the process could be completed this week in a one-day meeting of the House-Senate conference committee.

“If we can get everything worked out, that’s absolutely the goal,” she said.

The Senate version of the bill was approved 95-3 in May. The House plan passed more than a year earlier, in April 2003, by a tighter vote of 251-171, with only 34 Democrats voting for it.

A range of differences are apparent in the competing plans on such matters as discipline provisions for students with disabilities, enforcement measures, and the definition of a “highly qualified” special education teacher. But outside analysts and congressional aides have long maintained that the differences were not so severe as to be unbridgeable.

Meanwhile, Congress is behind schedule, as usual, in wrapping up deliberations on spending for the 2005 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. The Department of Education is operating under a short-term “continuing resolution.”

The fate of the budget discussions appeared somewhat less certain than that of the IDEA bill, though both Republican and Democratic aides said last week that the chances of getting a spending package completed this month were beginning to seem brighter.

If the House and the Senate can agree on budget matters, lawmakers will likely combine a series of uncompleted appropriations bills into an omnibus package for a long list of government agencies. If not, they could end up passing a yearlong continuing resolution that would keep the government operating, most likely at the spending levels for fiscal 2004.

The House in September overwhelmingly passed an appropriations bill for the departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Labor that offered a $2 billion increase in discretionary spending for the Education Department, to $57.7 billion.

It matches President Bush’s request to add an extra $1 billion apiece for special education state grants and the Title I program for disadvantaged students. The House bill would zero out some programs, such as for arts education and dropout prevention. And it would all but eliminate the Title V block grant, chopping it from $300 million to $20 million.

Budget Talks

In the Senate, the companion spending bill made it through the Appropriations Committee this past summer, but it has not been brought to the floor. One chief difference from the House bill for the three departments is that it assumes $3.2 billion overall in extra discretionary spending, money obtained through what have been widely described as budget gimmicks.

Congressional aides said that extra amount was unlikely to be part of a final compromise, though there was some talk of adding an across-the-board cut to nondefense agencies to make extra room for spending hikes for education and some other key programs.

For the Education Department overall, the Senate bill would add another $1.2 billion above the House level, for a total of $58.8 billion. It would provide a $1.1 billion boost for Title I and a $1.2 billion increase for special education. In addition, it would create two programs to help states and districts implement the No Child Left Behind Act—$100 million to help schools identified for improvement under the law, and $40 million to help states with data collection. (The House bill contains $30 million for data collection.)

It would abolish the Title V program, which can be used for a wide array of purposes, from remedial programs to educational technology. ("Educators Lobby Congress to Keep Title V Funding," Oct. 27, 2004.)

Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a group in Washington that lobbies for increased aid to education, said he believes Election Day—which brought GOP gains in both houses, along with President Bush’s re-election—may well have altered the dynamics for the fiscal 2005 budget.

“I think the elections certainly strengthen the hands of the president and fiscal conservatives who want to tighten up on domestic … spending,” he said. “I think the funding increases that we were looking forward to in the Senate are very much at risk.”

Vol. 24, Issue 12, Page 25

Published in Print: November 17, 2004, as Lame-Duck Session of Congress to Address IDEA, Budget
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