Senate Shifts as Spending Fight Looms

By Erik W. Robelen — May 30, 2001 8 min read
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Official Washington spent much of last week asking, first, “Will he or won’t he?” That quickly morphed into “Why did he?”

But with iconoclastic Vermont Sen. James M. Jeffords now an ex-Republican and the Senate headed for Democratic control, the most pressing question is what Mr. Jeffords’ abrupt change to Independent status might mean for the agenda of the White House and Congress, including the education bill still pending in the Senate.

Several lawmakers and lobbyists interviewed late last week said the new party lineup was likely to have little effect on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization. The House overwhelmingly approved its version of the bill May 23, and the bipartisan Senate bill is nearing its final form.

The wide-ranging ESEA bill, however, is not the only place Congress will debate school matters this year. The education funding battle is only warming up. And when it comes time to appropriate money for fiscal 2002, control of the Senate will hand Democrats greater leverage in deciding what the education budget will look like—both how much is spent and where.

Pet Democratic priorities such as stand-alone programs for school repair and class-size reduction, which appeared to be out of the ESEA picture after being narrowly defeated on the Senate floor, are expected to resurface during the appropriations debate, with Democrats occupying the relevant committee and subcommittee chairmanships.

Meanwhile, Sen. Jeffords, who currently chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, made clear that disagreements on education—especially how much money the federal government should kick in—were critical in his decision to quit the Republican Party.

Special Education Dispute

“Looking ahead, I can see more and more instances where I will disagree with the president on very fundamental issues,” he said from the ballroom of a Burlington, Vt., hotel in announcing his decision May 24. “Issues of choice, the direction of the judiciary, tax and spending decisions, missile defense, energy and the environment, and a host of other issues large and small. The largest for me is education.”

While Mr. Jeffords has expressed disappointment with President Bush’s proposed education spending, he and the White House have particularly sharp differences on special education. Sen. Jeffords for years has pushed hard to dramatically step up special education spending.

The president proposed an increment of $1 billion, while Mr. Jeffords co-sponsored a measure that would lock in increases of $2.5 billion in each year for the next six years. Mr. Bush opposes the measure.

Mr. Jeffords, one of the Senate’s most liberal Republicans, won a third term last November. Before that, he spent 14 years in the House and held various elected positions in Vermont.

Chairman Kennedy

Mr. Jeffords’ announcement last week will tip the chamber’s balance of power to the Democrats, whom Mr. Jeffords promised to support on organizational matters. Currently, the Senate is divided 50-50, with the GOP having the edge because Republican Vice President Richard B. Cheney is its presiding officer.

Mr. Jeffords said his change of status would not take effect until pending tax-cut legislation is sent to the president’s desk.

The coming 50-49-1 split means that Democrats will have the majority, chair the chamber’s committees, and set the floor agenda. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., will chair the education committee. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, will chair the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Education Department’s budget.

Both Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Harkin are generally viewed as old-style liberals, though Mr. Harkin has taken more conservative positions on some issues such as a balanced-budget amendment.

It remained unclear last week what post Mr. Jeffords would have to replace his education committee chairmanship, though reportedly Democrats had offered him the top seat on the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Referring to the coming shift to Democratic control, Sen. Harkin said in an interview last week: “I believe that this bodes well for education. We’ll now be able to at least start out at a better place.”

The Iowa Democrat will take the lead in writing the education spending bill in the Senate. He made clear that the bill from his subcommittee would include, for example, federal money for school repair and renovation. Congress last year provided $1.2 billion for that purpose, at the urging of President Clinton, but President Bush and most congressional Republicans oppose continuing the initiative.

Mr. Harkin said he recognizes, however, that the fate of such Democratic priorities remains uncertain, given that Republicans control the presidency and the House of Representatives. In addition, he said, he faces another hurdle on the spending side.

“I want to give one note of caution that the budget has already been set,” Mr. Harkin said, referring to the budget resolution approved by Congress earlier this month. He said the discretionary-spending limits set in that resolution will impose heavy constraints on lawmakers.

“I can tell you it’s going to be very tough,” he said.

Still, the record in Congress the past few years suggests that members are willing to exceed the spending caps set in the budget resolution.

Concerning the ongoing ESEA debate, now on hold until after the weeklong Memorial Day recess, senators from both parties predict that because the process has been bipartisan, the power shift will not change much in the bill, which includes key elements of President Bush’s education plan.

Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who serves on the education committee, is among those who don’t expect such a change. Moreover, Mr. Frist argued, the power shift does not necessarily mean Democrats will have added leverage to boost education spending.

“I think if Senator Jeffords had stayed with the Republican Party, we might have seen an even larger infusion, just because of the leverage he had in the last 48 hours,” Mr. Frist said Thursday.

While not overestimating the impact of Sen. Jeffords’ announcement, Jim Manley, the spokesman for Sen. Kennedy, argued it would certainly play to Democrats’ advantage in the coming appropriations debate. And when House and Senate conferees meet soon to bridge differences between their ESEA bills, Mr. Kennedy as his chamber’s education chairman will be the leading voice for the Senate side.

“We’ll get more leverage, sure,” Mr. Manley said. “It’s a power to be reckoned with.”

‘Dignity and Respect’

Sen. Jeffords originally was expected to announce his party switch on Wednesday of last week, May 23, a day of high drama on Capitol Hill.

While the House debated and voted on the last of 28 amendments to its version of the education bill, senators were taking their final vote on what had become a $1.35 trillion tax cut.

At 2 p.m., when Mr. Jeffords had been scheduled to reveal his plans, he instead was sitting at his back-row desk in the Senate chamber joshing with staff members and (mostly Democratic) Senate colleagues during the final debate and vote on the tax cut. Mr. Jeffords, ambling down to the clerk’s desk, raised a finger in the air to signal his support of the tax bill, a compromise plan that would give President Bush most of the reduction he wanted.

That back-row seat could be construed as symbolic of what drove Mr. Jeffords to bolt the GOP. Press accounts focused in part on an apparent snub by Mr. Bush recently. Supposedly in retribution for Mr. Jeffords’ support of a smaller tax cut than the $1.6 trillion first sought by the president, the White House did not invite him to see one of his Vermont constituents receive the National Teacher of the Year award April 23. Then there was the president’s opposition to renewal of a New England dairy compact, a 1997 measure important to Mr. Jeffords that aids a key Vermont industry.

“It’s deeper than that,” Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said of the reasons for Mr. Jeffords’ departure from the GOP. Mr. Hagel was one of the Republican senators who met with Sen. Jeffords late Wednesday in what proved to be a failed attempt to change his mind.

Mr. Jeffords, at his announcement in Vermont the next day, characterized as “laughable” the idea that he would renounce his family’s traditional party affiliation over such minor matters. Instead, he said, the rightward shift of the party over the years and the specifics of the president’s agenda had made it impossible for him to remain a Republican.

“We don’t live in a parliamentary system,” Mr. Jeffords said. “But it is only natural to believe that people like myself, who have been honored with positions of leadership, will largely support the president’s agenda. And yet, more and more, I find I cannot.”

David S. Wolk, Vermont’s commissioner of education, applauded Sen. Jeffords’ decision.

“He’s always been a real independent,” said Mr. Wolk, who, while his post is nonpartisan, identifies himself as an Independent. “I think he’s public education’s best friend in Washington.”

Mr. Wolk said he had been mystified by the amount of media attention paid to the fact that Sen. Jeffords was not invited to the Teacher of the Year ceremony.

“It wasn’t a big deal,” Mr. Wolk said. “I was there. I took [Middlebury teacher Michele Forman] and her family to his office afterward, and frankly, it was the highlight of the day. He spent an hour and a half with her.”

Sen. Hagel said his colleague’s restiveness had to do with “dignity and respect,” or rather the perceived lack of such regard from the White House and Senate GOP leaders. He said Mr. Jeffords had bristled at attempts to “undermine” his chairmanship of the education committee and make him chairman “in name only.”

Last year, when Republicans held a two-seat majority on the panel, Mr. Jeffords took the unusual step of voting “present” on a couple of GOP education amendments that were too conservative for him. Both were approved by the committee along party lines.

Last-minute attempts to sway Mr. Jeffords from leaving the GOP, according to various reports, included offers to make him part of the Senate Republicans’ leadership group and to waive a term-limit rule that would have required that he relinquish his committee chairmanship in 2003.

Mr. Hagel, meanwhile, cautioned last week that the actual process of reorganizing the Senate with a new leadership could create a slight delay in resuming legislative business once the Senate returns from its recess.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2001 edition of Education Week as Senate Shifts as Spending Fight Looms


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