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EDUCATION FUNDING STILL IN LIMBO: Congress to Consider Spending Bills During Lame-Duck Session

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"intent on forcing quick action, holding spending down, and pushing its own priorities,"

During the week of November 15, the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives will reconvene for a lame-duck session to consider funding for the nine unfinished spending bills. Among these is the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill, which funds the U.S. Department of Education.

Before leaving Washington in October to campaign in their home districts and elsewhere, members of the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to provide $58.85 billion for the U.S. Department of Education for fiscal 2005. That amount is $1.2 billion higher than the bill passed by the House of Representatives back in September and $1.5 billion more than President Bush requested when he submitted his budget in February. The higher levels in the Senate were made possible by a creative accounting mechanism that is opposed by the House Republican leadership.

It seems unlikely that the House will accept the Senate’s version of the bill, a possibility that could make final agreement on a bill extremely difficult. The Congress has a number of options at this point. For instance, members could combine the nine remaining bills into a single omnibus bill and vote on all of the remaining appropriations at once. Most top congressional aides believe that negotiations on an omnibus spending bill will feature an aggressive White House that is “intent on forcing quick action, holding spending down, and pushing its own priorities,” according to CQ Weekly. It is likely that an across-the-board cut could be used to hold down spending.

The Congress could also choose to extend the continuing resolution, currently set to expire on November 20, which funds programs at their fiscal 2004 levels until January, when the 109th Congress will convene and can resolve the issues. However, this option could work against Republican moderates and Democrats seeking higher spending-especially considering that the
number of Republican “budget hawks” will grow, particularly in the Senate. The White House has also made it clear that it wants the fiscal 2005 budget completed this fall.

Many observers believe the lame-duck session will offer a glimpse into how the triumphant Bush administration and the Republican Congress, with its increased majorities, intend to govern in the 109th Congress. “Watch what happens here,” G. William Hoagland, the top budget aide to Senate Majority Leaders Bill Frist (R-TN), told CQ Weekly. “That will send a signal as to how tough we’re going to be . . . on domestic” discretionary spending.

More details on individual programs within the Labor, HHS, and Education appropriations bill are available in the September 27 issue ofStraight A’s, which is available here.

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