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DEMOCRATS CONSIDER LEFTOVER SPENDING BILLS: Coalition of Heath and Education Advocates Pushes for $2 Billion in Additional Spending

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“The outgoing Republican Leadership’s failure to govern has denied the new Congress the opportunity to start with a fresh slate.”

When Congress adjourned in December, it had passed appropriations bills only for defense and homeland security for Fiscal Year 2007, which began on October 1. Anticipating that it would not be able to pass the remaining nine appropriations bills before the end of 2006, Congress passed a continuing resolution that punted spending decisions to the 110th Congress, which began on January 4, with Democrats assuming control of both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

To expeditiously finalize FY 2007 spending and move on to the FY 2008 budget development process, the new chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) and Representative David Obey (D-WI), announced in late December that Congress would enact a yearlong spending resolution when it returned in January. The resolution would freeze funding for programs under the nine remaining appropriations bills at their current levels through the end of the fiscal year on September 30, 2007.

“The outgoing Republican Leadership’s failure to govern has denied the new Congress the opportunity to start with a fresh slate,” their statement read. “As incoming Chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, we are now responsible for finding a way out of this fiscal mayhem. It is important that we clear the decks quickly so that we can get to work on the American people’s priorities, the President’s anticipated war funding request, and a new budget.”

In their statement, Senator Byrd and Representative Obey acknowledged that they had “no good options available” but said they would try to make “whatever limited adjustments” that were possible within the confines of the Republican budget and its $873 billion spending maximum. According to congressional staff with knowledge of the process, an additional $2 billion to $12 billion could be made available for certain priorities.

The current expectation is that a yearlong continuing resolution would fund programs of the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education at about $5 billion more than requested in the president’s FY 2006 budget. Last week, however, a coalition of approximately 250 health, education, and other domestic organizations, including the Alliance for Excellent Education, sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), and Appropriations Committee Chairmen Byrd and Obey asking them to provide an additional $2 billion in spending for these domestic priorities, for a total of $7 billion over the president’s budget request level.

Not only would the $2 billion restore cuts in funding that were made in FY 2006, but it would also honor the commitment that the Senate made in March of last year when it approved an amendment by Senators Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) that set aside an additional $7 billion for the Departments of Health and Human Services, Education, and Labor. The amendment, which enjoyed considerable bipartisan support, had passed on a 73–27 vote.

“Over the past year, you have spoken out strongly about your commitment to funding health, education, and other vital programs,” the letter reads. “Now you have to the opportunity to act on that commitment.”

While Democrats hope to resolve the outstanding spending issues quickly, some congressional staff have hinted that the process is more likely to be finished closer to February 15, the day that the stopgap funding resolution that Congress passed in December is set to expire.

 

Movement for Voluntary National Standards Gaining Ground in the New Congress

 

A consensus has been building among researchers and policymakers that far too many states have set their educational standards well below the levels needed to ensure that students are effectively prepared for college and the modern workforce, with implications for the nation’s ability to remain internationally competitive and commitment to educational equity. Thus, national standards are gaining steam as an important issue for discussion by members of the 110th Congress. Although they were previously seen as politically taboo, voluntary national standards are already the focus of at least two bills that were introduced in the first few days of the new legislative session.

Introduced by Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), the States Using Collaboration and Coordination to Enhance Standards for Students (SUCCESS) Act takes a roundabout approach to reaching common national standards. For example, the SUCCESS Act would examine gaps in student performance on state-level assessments and assist states that want to see how their standards compare to those of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). It would also establish P–16 Preparedness Councils that would align student knowledge and skills with the expectations of the college and the labor market. It would also encourage states to work together to develop common standards and assessments that are rigorous and that adequately prepare students for the economy of twenty-first century.

A second bill, the Standards to Provide Educational Achievement for All Kids (SPEAK) Act, introduced by Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT)and Representative Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), would address the issue of developing national standards more directly by calling on the National Assessment Governing Board to create rigorous voluntary content standards in math and science in grades K–12. The bill would also provide significant incentives to encourage states to adopt such standards. The authors were careful to note that the bill does not establish a national curriculum and that participation in the program would be voluntary.

With the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which celebrated its fifth anniversary on January 8, due for reauthorization this year, a discussion around national standards is shaping up to be a key part of the process. The January 22 issue of Straight A’s will offer complete coverage of NCLB’s fifth anniversary.

 

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