The education portion of a massive spending bill mushroomed during two weeks of Senate haggling, a debate that ended with the legislation passing by a comfortable margin on Jan. 23.
Although 19 Democrats joined with 50 Republicans on the bill’s final 69-29 vote, a majority of Democrats were opposed, saying the legislation shortchanges many important domestic programs.
At press time, it appeared that the Department of Education budget in the Senate bill—an overdue spending package for fiscal 2003—was about $6.7 billion above the $49.9 billion allotted the previous year.
But the growth came at a price: Republicans, joined by two Democrats, voted for an amendment imposing an across-the-board cut to all domestic federal programs to compensate for adding $5 billion for education to the $390 billion omnibus package .
And there’s just one other thing: the House.
The version backed by the Republican leadership in that chamber has a far lower budget for the Education Department, roughly in line with President Bush’s $50.3 billion request. For the Senate’s education figure to prevail, the House likely would have to agree to cut money elsewhere.
That’s because President Bush has told lawmakers he wants them to stick to a discretionary-spending total of $750 billion for fiscal 2003. Almost half that total is already a done deal, passed by the last Congress to pay for military spending.
John Scofield, a spokesman for Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee, declined to comment specifically on the Senate’s education amendments. But he hinted that some of the changes might be a tough sell for House members.
“Traditionally, the House committee has not been fond of across-the-board cuts,” he said.
Republicans had hoped to deliver the long-overdue spending bill to Mr. Bush before his State of the Union Address on Jan. 28. Fiscal 2003 began Oct. 1, and since then Congress has passed a series of what are called continuing resolutions to keep government programs running. But meeting that Jan. 28 target looked unlikely late last week, given the complex negotiations set to take place between the House and Senate.
The Senate this month finally took up the spending package, a revised version of bills approved by that chamber’s Appropriations Committee last summer, when Democrats held the majority.
At the starting gate, the Republican bill had $51.7 billion for education. That level quickly dropped to about $50.8 billion after Republicans included an across-the-board reduction of 1.6 percent to support extra spending for drought assistance and other matters.
The education money quickly shot back up, however.
On Jan. 16, Democrats pitched an amendment to add nearly $7 billion for education programs. Republicans, vowing to keep the bill’s overall cost intact, were opposed.
But with the GOP feeling pressure on the issue, after months of Democratic brickbats about leaving children behind with what the opposition party characterized as penurious education spending, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the new chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, offered an alternative. He proposed a $5 billion boost for education. The catch was that his plan required an across-the-board cut of 1.3 percent to all programs in the $390 billion domestic appropriations bill.
The amendment also was in keeping with Sen. Gregg’s preference for local control. The $5 billion came in the form of block grants to school districts to pay for any number of education programs. It was approved 52-45.
“The purpose of the amendment is to say: ‘OK, I am willing to increase the funding for education, and I think people on our side are willing to, ... but let’s do it in a way that is responsible,’” Mr. Gregg said. “I think it is pretty important we start getting fiscal discipline around here. ... The [education] money will be available with no strings attached.”
Democrats objected that the across-the-board cuts would hurt many valuable programs.
A week later, Democrats were back with a second amendment to hike special education spending by $1.5 billion. Again, no offsets were provided. And again, Mr. Gregg came back with an amendment to provide the same amount for special education, with offsets.
But after negotiations between Republicans and Democrats, this plan was dropped in favor of another approach that won approval on a voice vote. The $1.5 billion, under this approach, would not require any cuts. Instead, it would be “advance” appropriated, a budget trick to get around the spending cap Mr. Bush wants. While the money would be included in the fiscal 2003 budget, the Education Department would not release it until at least Oct. 1 of this year, the start of fiscal 2004.
However, the White House recently made clear that it would oppose any additional “advance” appropriations.
All told, the bill at press time appeared to have about $56.6 billion for education.
Mr. Bush’s Bid
President Bush’s original Education Department spending request for fiscal 2003 was $50.3 billion, a modest increase at that point of $1.4 billon, or 2.8 percent, over the previous year.
But then Congress and the president agreed last summer to add $1 billion to the fiscal 2002 budget to make up a shortfall in the Pell Grant program for needy college students. In effect, that increase in the previous budget means Mr. Bush’s request, which remained unchanged, now represents a smaller increase—$400 million, or less than 1 percent.
Democrats have pounded away at the president for months over his request. They argue, especially given the demands of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, that the federal government must dramatically step up its funding commitment.
One Senate Democratic aide, who asked not to be named, suggested that the Republican effort to push through an education increase paid for with across-the-board cuts was simply a short-term strategy to protect the GOP from difficult floor votes.
“It’s just a totally cynical move,” the aide said. “It gives Republicans cover to vote for an increase in education, but everyone knows it’s going to vanish.”
Not so, said Christine Iverson, the new communications director for Republicans on the Senate education committee. She said Senate Republicans would fight to retain the increase when they meet in a conference with House members to negotiate their differences.
“If Democrats were serious, they would offer amendments that were paid for,” she said.
Thomas E. Mann, an expert on politics at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said the extra money for schools may well survive the House-Senate conference committee.
"[Republicans] are politically vulnerable on several high- priority items, including education,” he said. “I expect Bush will push the House to accept the additional education funding.”
The White House Office of Management and Budget did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Meanwhile, President Bush released tidbits last week from his budget plans for education in fiscal 2004. He proposed a 5 percent raise for each of three programs benefiting minority higher education institutions. The president wants $371 million in funding for historically black colleges and universities, historically black graduate institutions, and Hispanic- serving institutions.
Also, Mr. Bush outlined plans to expand financial incentives for mathematics, science, and special education teachers who agree to work for five years in schools serving high-poverty students. Such teachers would get as much as $17,500 in student-loan forgiveness, up from the current $5,000.
The president is expected to submit his 2004 budget request to Congress early next month.
Staff Writers Sean Cavanagh and Lisa Fine Goldstein contributed to this report.