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BUDGET DEBATES BEGIN ON CAPITOL HILL: Secretary Paige Testifies, House and Senate Budget Committees Consider Budget Resolutions

"I don't want deficits, I don't like deficits, and I will not pretend that deficits don't matter,"

Over the last couple of weeks, the congressional budgetary process has kicked into high gear as U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paigetestified before a House Appropriations Subcommittee and the House and Senate Budget Committees began work on a congressional budget resolution.

During his testimony, Paige encountered pointed criticism from several members (both Democrats and Republicans), about what they felt was inadequate funding for education programs. In response, Paige stressed that he and President Bush are willing to rework the President’s education budget request, but would not revise the total amount requested. As it now stands, the President’s budget would essentially freeze education spending at the level Congress appropriated for 2003.

Rep. David Obey (D-WI), the subcommittee’s ranking member, took Paige to task over what he believed were misleading statements regarding the President’s funding increases for education. In his testimony, Paige said that the administration’s request “seeks $53.1 billion for Department of Education programs in 2004 [and] represents more than a 25 percent increase since 2001 and a 130 percent increase in federal education funding since fiscal year 1996.” Rep. Obey noted that while Congress appropriated $9.9 billion from fiscal 2001 to fiscal 2003, the President’s budget requests only totaled an increase of $2.7 billion.

House and Senate Budget Committees Consider Fiscal 2004 Budget Resolutions

After failing to pass a congressional budget resolution last year, congressional leaders have made passing an agreement on spending a top priority this year. Last Wednesday, the House and Senate Budget Committees began work on a budget with a goal of passage before the Easter recess in mid-April. While the Senate committee’s budget plan provides about $2.5 billion more for education than the President’s request, the House version actually would cut education funding below the President’s proposal.

In his opening statement, House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle (R-IA) stated his intention to present a balanced federal budget: “I don’t want deficits, I don’t like deficits, and I will not pretend that deficits don’t matter,” he said as he introduced a budget that focused on three areas: Protecting America and protecting Americans; getting Americans back to work and strengthening the economy; and getting the budget back on a path to being balanced.

Nussle was true to his word, but had to make difficult cuts to popular domestic programs to achieve it. He unveiled a budget that contains $1.5 trillion in tax cuts as proposed by the President’s economic plan, $400 billion for prescription drug coverage, and showed a balanced budget before the end of the 10-year budget forecast. In order to close projected deficits, Nussle’s budget, called the “chairman’s mark,” included deep spending cuts for almost all federal programs, with the exception of Social Security, unemployment insurance, domestic security, and military spending. For education, Nussle’s plan recommends $2.3 billion, or a 2.9 percent cut below the President’s budget request.

Budget Committee Democrats offered several amendments to increase education funding, but all except one were defeated on party-line votes. One amendment offered would have added $7.7 billion in fiscal 2004 for education programs to the chairman’s mark, which would have raised programs funded under the No Child Left Behind Act to $27.1 billion. The additional funding would have been enough money to: 1) raise the maximum Pell Grant to $4,500; 2) restore $1.6 billion for 46 education programs that the President’s budget proposes to eliminate; and 3) increase funding for No Child Left Behind Act programs by a total of $4.5 billion over the President’s requested level; and 4)restore $1.1 billion that the Republicans cut from the President’s levels for these programs. The agreed upon amendment added $223 million for the Impact Aid program which provides financial support to school districts on Indian lands or military bases. The majority of children served by this program have parents in the active military.

The Senate budget resolution, drafted by Senate Budget Chairman Don Nickles (R-OK), provides an increase of $900 million in education funding, or about two percent over the President’s budget request. It would provide a $1 billion increase for Title I and another $1 billion increase for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. However, the Senate budget resolution would eliminate funding for 46 education programs as proposed in the President’s budget.

Each budget resolution is scheduled to go to the floor of its respective chamber during the week of March 17, but the consensus among lawmakers and aides is that neither of the plans approved in committee has the votes to win passage on the floor, according to CQ Weekly. In all likelihood, the House and Senate will pass differing versions and look to hammer out an agreement during a House-Senate conference.

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