The chances that Congress will wrap up an overdue bill to renew the main federal special education law improved vastly last week, when the Senate announc ed that it was ready to enter final negotiations with the House of Representatives.
The reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act had been stalled for months because of partisan tensions on Capitol Hill.
“There was just mutual agreement that a lot of good work had gone into this, and that it would be a shame to go back to the drawing board next Congress,” said Gayle Osterberg, a spokeswoman for Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
“I expect staff would start meeting as early as next week,” she said Sept. 23.
Both the Republican-controlled House and Senate have passed bills reauthorizing the idea, which was last updated in 1997.
The Senate bill met with little opposition and passed 95-3 in May. By contrast, the House bill was far less bipartisan, and was approved by a narrower margin, 251-171, in April 2003. Only 34 Democrats voted for it.
The next step is for the two chambers to convene a conference committee to negotiate differences on major issues, such as discipline for students with disabilities, enforcement measures, and the definition of a “highly qualified” special education teacher.
Task Is ‘Doable’
That process bogged down when Senate Democrats used procedural rules to prevent the conference committee from forming, citing worries that their views might be ignored in a conference run by Republicans. The Democrats had sought to reach deals in key policy areas before proceeding, but Republicans signaled little interest in that approach.
Ultimately, Democrats talked more broadly of securing guarantees of their meaningful participation in the deliberations.
“Democrats received assurances that they will be treated fairly,” Jim Manley, a spokes man for Sen. Edward M. Ken n edy, D-Mass., said last week. “And with that, the Senate appointed conferees.”
He said a final bill was “doable.”
Asked whether any special arrangements were made to bring Democrats on board, Ms. Osterberg said, “No, there weren’t any secret deals, or even regular deals.”
“Our committee,” she added, “has a very positive history of conferencing bipartisan bills.”
David Schnittger, a spokesman for Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, welcomed the news.
“[W]e’re very pleased Senate Democrats have finally allowed House-Senate negotiations to proceed,” said Mr. Schnittger. He added that the House would name its conferees “as soon as we can manage to convince our leadership that this has actually happened, after such a long and basically pointless wait.”
“I’ve got about 75 percent optimism [that Congress will finish this year], because the issues are thorny,” said Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the Arlington-based American Association of School Administrators.
But President Bush may not get a Rose Garden signing ceremony before Election Day, since the negotiations may well continue into a lame-duck session Congress is expected to convene in mid-November.