Elections Yield Delicate New Balance On Hill

By Erik W. Robelen — November 15, 2000 7 min read

Congressional Democrats reaped modest gains in last week’s hard-fought elections, which some observers here say could step up pressure for a more centrist, bipartisan approach to federal education policy on Capitol Hill next year, regardless of which candidate ultimately wins the White House.

While Republicans are set to retain control of both the House and Senate in the 107th Congress, as of late last week Democrats had secured at least 49 seats in the Senate and had scored significant victories in such states as New York, Missouri, and Delaware. In addition, with one Senate race still undecided as of late last week, the chamber could be split 50-50 on partisan lines next year.

Meanwhile, in the House, Democrats appeared to have slightly narrowed the already slim GOP majority in that chamber on Nov. 7.

The new Congress faces some major business on the school front. First and foremost is the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main federal law for K-12 education. The reauthorization was supposed to have been completed this year, but the process stalled because of partisan disagreements.

The next Congress is also expected to take up legislation for federal education research, and it should turn to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which is up for reauthorization in 2002. And, even before the new members are sworn in, the current lame-duck Congress must return to Washington this week to approve an as-yet-unfinished education budget for fiscal 2001, which began Oct. 1.

The emphasis on education in this year’s political campaigns is likely to increase pressure to get something done in the coming Congress.

“Every candidate talked about their commitment to education,” said Amy Wilkins, a principal partner at the Education Trust, a Washington-based organization that promotes higher achievement for poor and minority students. She added that “the narrow margins will eliminate the ability for ideological highjacking....They’re going to have to look for middle ground.”

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a member of the Senate education committee, agreed. “I think it will lead to a more bipartisan approach to issues out of necessity, regardless of who is president,” she said. The senator suggested that moderate Republicans and Democrats will play a critical role in the coming Congress. “Moderates have a lot of interest in achieving consensus and forging compromise,” she said.

On the other hand, the close margins could produce a different outcome. “It will either increase bipartisan cooperation, or create total gridlock,” said Joel Packer, a senior lobbyist for the National Education Association.

The standoff in the presidential contest between Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and Vice President Al Gore further clouded the situation.

Notable Victories

Some of the most notable Senate Democratic victories last week were won by candidates who are likely to have an active interest in education policy, particularly first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who made history by winning a Senate seat from New York, and Gov. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware. Mr. Carper unseated five-term Sen. William V. Roth, while Mrs. Clinton defeated Rep. Rick Lazio, R-N.Y.

Mrs. Clinton has long been active on issues relating to children and families, including public education, and made education a central theme of her campaign. Gov. Carper, meanwhile, has made education a priority, and his education accountability plan was a centerpiece of his two terms as Delaware’s governor. Campaign officials for the two new senators-elect did not return calls for comment last week.

On the other side of the aisle, education was also a big issue in Republican George F. Allen’s successful bid in Virginia to unseat the state’s two-term Democratic incumbent, Sen. Charles S. Robb. A former governor of Virginia who championed the state’s academic-standards push during his tenure, Mr. Allen has said his top education priority will be a plan to create a $1,000-per-child tax credit that families could use to help purchase computers, educational software, or tutoring, among other education-related costs. It could not be used for tuition.

The final Senate balance of power hinges on two factors. First, in Washington state, the race between the Republican incumbent, Sen. Slade Gorton, and his Democratic challenger, high-tech executive and former Rep. Maria Cantwell, remained undecided late last week, with absentee ballots still being counted.

Second, if Mr. Gore wins the presidency, his running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, will have to relinquish his Senate seat. The GOP governor of Connecticut has indicated he would appoint a Republican to serve out Mr. Lieberman’s term. If Mr. Bush wins the election, his running mate, former Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney, would cast the tie- breaking vote in the Senate, giving Republicans the overall majority in the Senate even if the chamber has 50 members of each party.

The elections did not produce any shake-ups on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, where the five members up for re-election—three Republicans and two Democrats, including Chairman James M. Jeffords of Vermont—all won handily.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who is also on the education panel, said that while much remained uncertain with the presidential result in dispute, Senate Democrats would likely have a stronger hand to promote such measures as federal aid for class-size reduction and school construction.

“We’ll be in a better position to advance those issues in the next Congress,” Mr. Reed predicted, because of the Democrats’ gains on the Senate side.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said last week that he intended to seek some type of “power sharing” arrangement with Republicans, including requesting more Democratic seats on committees, more consultation in scheduling, and assurances that Republicans would not seek to prevent the consideration of Democratic amendments on the Senate floor.

But an aide to Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., suggested that the power-sharing concept might not go over with Republicans. “As of right now, I think things will stay the way they are,” said the aide, who asked not to be named.

Changes on House Panel

On the House side, Democrats appeared to have gained a minimum of two additional seats. Congressional Quarterly’s CQ Weekly magazineconsidered an authoritative source on Congresslast week was reporting a Republican-Democrat breakdown of either 222 to 211 or 221 to 212 depending on the outcome of one undecided race. In addition, two seats in the new Congress will be held by Independents. But recounts and absentee ballots could yield some minor shifts in the numbers.

At press time last Friday, voters had definitively ousted only one member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee in the general elections: Delegate Carlos A. Romero-Barcelo, a Democrat from Puerto Rico.

Rep. Rush D. Holt, D-N.J., a committee member, was locked in a tight race against Republican Dick Zimmer that was still too close to call late last week. Mr. Holt’s re-election bid became controversial after Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley was criticized for traveling to the lawmaker’s district twice this year for joint appearances with him.

In addition, another committee member, Rep. Matthew G. Martinez of California, lost in a Democratic primary earlier this year. Mr. Martinez later switched his party affiliation to the GOP.

But the biggest changes on the House education committee concern its leadership, as both Chairman Bill Goodling, R-Pa., and ranking Democrat William L. Clay of Missouri are retiring. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who has long been active on education matters, is expected to become the ranking Democrat. (“Miller Brings Independent Approach to School Concerns,” Oct. 25, 2000.)

On the GOP side, however, the chairmanship is up in the air. Rep. Tom Petri of Wisconsin is the second-ranking Republican on the committee after Mr. Goodling, but seniority may not be the deciding factor. In addition to Mr. Petri, Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, who at one time chaired the House Republican Conference in the House, has also been mentioned as a likely candidate for the committee chairmanship. A third contender is Rep. Peter Hoekstra, who chairs the education panel’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

Overall, Mr. Hoekstra predicted that, in the aftermath of the elections, House Republicans would likely continue their pursuit of “more local authority and more local flexibility” in federal education programs next year. “I see us working on the agenda we worked on in the last Congress,” he said. “I don’t see any radical shift in the education direction.”

Separately, a handful of educators sought seats in the House this year, though most did not fare well on Election Day. One exception was Democrat Mike Honda of California, a former teacher and principal, who defeated Republican Jim Cunneen.

Among the educators who lost were Democrat Nancy Keenan of Montana, the state superintendent of schools in Montana; Democrat Warren A. Stewart of Virginia, a former superintendent; and Republican Jane Amero of Maine, who previously was a teacher and the president of the Maine board of education. (“Educators Compete for Seats in Next Congress,” Nov. 1, 2000.)

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A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2000 edition of Education Week as Elections Yield Delicate New Balance On Hill


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