The Senate has had a hard time saying no to schools lately: In the past two weeks, it’s backed amendments to a budget blueprint that caused the education price tag to skyrocket.
When the final numbers were tallied last week, the Republican-controlled Senate was on record supporting about $8.2 billion more than President Bush wants for the Department of Education in fiscal 2004, a 15 percent increase. The House a week earlier had approved a budget resolution that appeared to largely embrace Mr. Bush’s request.
But before states and districts start counting any extra cash, the Senate proposals will have to leap a few big hurdles, including thorny negotiations with the House, where the Senate figure is almost certain to drop.
The Senate on March 26 approved the budget resolution, which guides tax and spending decisions, by a largely party-line vote of 56-44. Even with the extra education money, most Democrats said they couldn’t stomach the budget plan, especially given its emphasis on tax cuts.
That said, Democrats, joined by a small group of moderate Republicans, succeeded earlier in scaling back the tax cuts.
Higher and Higher
For the Education Department, the original Senate bill envisioned a fairly modest increase of about $1 billion over the $53.1 billion in discretionary spending allotted for the current budget year, fiscal 2003. Mr. Bush’s request for the coming year would provide about the same level, though with some reshuffled priorities.
But apparently, the billion-dollar increase was a mere warm-up for the Senate floor debate.
First, countering one of the many Democratic amendments aimed at education, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., offered a measure to raise the special education budget by another $1 billion in fiscal 2004, and more still in later years. The catch to his amendment, which was approved 88-11, was that it would be paid for with unspecified cuts elsewhere.
All told, the Senate bill calls for a $2 billion rise for special education state grants over the $8.8 billion for 2003. An additional $205 million would go into a reserve fund to be used if Congress reauthorizes the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act this year.
Two other successful GOP amendments followed a similar pattern of requiring unspecified offsets. Those measures added a $2 billion block grant for school districts and an extra $112 million for the $1.1 billion impact-aid program, which provides financial help to school districts whose tax bases are limited by the presence of federal installations.
Meanwhile, three Democratic measures that won approval would be offset by lowering proposed tax cuts. One would add $1.8 billion for Pell Grants for needy college students; another would allow $275 million for several education programs, including school construction; and the third would provide an extra $2 billion for programs under the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001.
The increases, however, are far from a done deal.
First, while the budget resolution does not require the president’s signature, the two chambers must reconcile the differences in their plans. Second, the key figure in the budget resolution actually is the overall discretionary-spending limit. Congress still must pass 13 spending bills to lock in specific figures for federal programs and agencies, including the Education Department.
Republicans defeated several other Democratic attempts to provide still more education dollars.
“To continue to add money to these educational accounts is really the theater of uncontrolled spending,” said Sen. Gregg. "[I]t is not substance any longer that we are dealing with; it is simply the purposes of show.”
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said he’s not persuaded that most Republicans really support the spending levels for education in the bill.
Mr. Manley suggested some in the GOP may have backed the amendments “hoping it will all disappear when it comes out of conference [with the House].”
But, he added, “they’re on the record as voting for these things. It’s hard to justify moving away from these now.”