Education legislation faced another delay last week when concerns over anthrax contamination on Capitol Hill, which prompted the House to shut down for several days, led lawmakers to abruptly cancel a meeting on the bill. As of press time, the meeting had been rescheduled for this week.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Congress has had trouble convening the 39 members of a House-Senate conference committee to ratify agreements on a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The meetings have been planned several times, only to be postponed.
The conferees met on Sept. 25, the first and, so far, only meeting since early August. Both chambers have approved versions of the ESEA bill and now are seeking to reconcile differences.
With time running short in the legislative session, the delays—coupled with an apparent lack of agreement on the most divisive issues, and the many other pressing matters before Congress—have led some observers to question once again whether the ESEA overhaul can be completed this year.
After an Oct. 12 meeting with President Bush to discuss progress on the bill, House and Senate education leaders re- emphasized their determination to finish.
But the lawmakers—Reps. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and George Miller, D-Calif., and Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, D- Mass., and Judd Gregg, R-N.H.—offered little information on the negotiations during a press briefing outside the White House.
“We’re not quite there yet,” said Rep. Boehner, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “We’ve reached a lot of agreement, but there are a number of remaining issues that we have to resolve.”
Rep. Miller, the ranking Democrat on the education panel, said he was encouraged by the meeting.
"[The president] made it clear that he was willing to spend political capital to get this done,” he said.
The conference committee session rescheduled for this week will likely address four areas: educational technology, the Safe and Drug- Free Schools and Communities program, American Indian education, and impact aid, which goes to school districts affected by the presence of nontaxable federal installations, such as military bases.
The formal conference meeting, like two previous ones, is expected to serve largely as a rubber stamp for behind-the-scenes negotiations involving staff members and key lawmakers.
Meanwhile, the Senate spending bill for education is still awaiting floor action. Republican leaders have used procedural obstacles to prevent votes on some spending bills over the past two weeks, as a way of pressuring Democrats to move more quickly to approve the president’s judicial nominees.
On Wednesday of last week, the chamber passed a spending bill for the Department of Interior and related agencies. But the deadlock continues to hold up other spending bills, including the one containing the Department of Education.
The version of the Department of Education budget approved Oct. 11 by the Senate Appropriations Committee would provide an increase of $6.3 billion, for a total of $48.5 billion in discretionary spending. The House bill, approved the same day, contains about $49.3 billion.
The House and the Senate last week passed their third “continuing resolution” to keep the government running through Oct. 31. The new fiscal year began Oct. 1.