Congressional Republicans are shifting their school choice campaign to the tax code, and conservative groups are lining up behind them for a fight with an uncooperative Clinton administration.
Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Sen. Paul D. Coverdell, both Georgia Republicans, have promised to push for tax-free savings accounts that could be spent on tuition at private and parochial K-12 schools. The initiative will be a priority this fall, Mr. Coverdell said in a nationally broadcast radio address in August.
But no such initiative is likely to be signed into law as long as President Clinton is in the White House. Mr. Clinton specifically said he would veto a recent five-year balanced-budget and tax package if the private school tuition tax breaks sponsored by Mr. Coverdell were in it. The Republican leadership took the measure out of the bill, which included similar savings accounts for college costs, before sending the measure to Mr. Clinton.
“It’s a back door to vouchers, a step toward undermining public education,” White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said.
Regardless, Republicans are determined to get the choice initiative back to the president in a stand-alone bill. Mr. Coverdell spoke about his so-called A+ Accounts plan during the GOP’s nationally broadcast weekly radio address on Aug. 9.
“With your help, we can get Mr. Clinton to reconsider his veto threat,” he said. “With your help, we can convince him to put the interests of school kids ahead of the special interests that oppose parents’ rights in schooling.”
The accounts would allow parents, grandparents, and scholarship sponsors to deposit up to $2,000 free of federal income tax into an A+ Account. Withdrawals could be go to private or parochial school tuition, out-of-district public school tuition, tutoring, educational materials, or computers.
The plan marks the move of the current school choice debate into tax policy. In recent years, proposals for federal voucher-demonstration projects failed because opponents mustered the 41 votes necessary to extend the Senate debate endlessly under the chamber’s filibuster rules and thus indefinitely postpone a vote. The current strategy would avoid a filibuster because Senate rules strictly limit the time for debate on tax bills.
Republicans already have won the support of conservatives who in the past backed federal experiments with voucher programs similar to ones now financed with state dollars in Milwaukee and Cleveland. The Christian Coalition, for example, listed K-12 tuition-savings accounts as one of its top legislative priorities for the fall at a news conference last week.
When Mr. Coverdell’s plan was put up for a vote in the Senate, it won the support of Democrats Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey, and John B. Breaux and Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana.
Mr. Torricelli, who is new to the Senate, is listed as a co-sponsor of the Coverdell plan. Mr. Lieberman is a long-standing choice advocate, and Mr. Breaux and other Louisiana Democrats have voted for voucher programs in the past.
As it is, the White House and GOP proponents can’t even agree on the events that led to the K-12 credit’s removal from the tax bill Mr. Clinton signed Aug. 5.
Mr. Coverdell won approval for the A+ Accounts in a last-minute amendment to the Senate’s tax bill. Because of time limits, the Senate debated Mr. Coverdell’s amendment for only two minutes. The Senate approved the plan, 59-41. The House’s tax bill did not include a similar provision.
In negotiations to create a bill Mr. Clinton would promise to sign, White House aides were “clear and unwavering in our opposition” to the A+ Accounts, said Michael Cohen, the president’s education adviser.
When negotiators shook hands on a deal on July 29, Republicans requested a letter signed by the president threatening a veto of the entire package if the A+ Accounts were in it, the White House aides said. Such letters are common in Washington. They give members of Congress proof to show their constituents that they fought as hard as they could for a specific bill or amendment.
Before the letter was delivered to Capitol Hill, Mr. Clinton publicly said he would sign the tax bill. Republicans believed the A+ Accounts were still in the tax bill because the formal veto threat had not arrived before the president’s endorsement, according to an aide to Mr. Coverdell.
But the White House assumed that the accounts had been removed because their negotiators made it clear that the president would not accept the Coverdell plan, Mr. Lockhart said.
When Mr. Clinton’s letter arrived on Capitol Hill on the evening of July 29, Republicans objected. The president called Mr. Gingrich at about 8:30 that evening to reiterate his veto threat on the A+ Accounts, an aide to Mr. Coverdell said.
“It was a sneak attack, almost a Pearl Harbor for education reform,” Mr. Coverdell said in his radio speech.
Rather than force a confrontation, GOP leaders opted to take the language out of the bill eventually sent to the president. But they decided to move new bills through the House and Senate this fall.
“It’s startling to think that this would be a surprise, given that they requested the letter,” Mr. Lockhart, the White House spokesman, said.