Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Budget and Appropriations

Capitol Hill was buzzing last week, as lawmakers pushed to address a number of legislative issues before adjourning for a two-week "Harvest Recess." That push included action on a number of pieces of legislation of interest to education advocates. After languishing for months, the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved Head Start reauthorization legislation last Wednesday. The Senate vote was 95 to 0, while the House approved the bill by a margin of 381 to 36. The conference report on the bill authorizes $7.35 billion for the program in FY 2008, $7.5 billion in FY 2009 and $7.9 billion in FY 2010. The president is expected to sign the bill, although during debate and negotiations on the final compromise bill, the White House had protested that it did not include language allowing faith-based organizations enrolled in the program to hire staff on the basis of religion. <BR
Also on Wednesday, the House Education and Labor Committee began what would be a marathon mark up of legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HR 4137). After 12 hours of offering amendments, debating their merits and voting, the committee approved that bill unanimously Thursday morning. On Thursday evening, the House considered an attempt to override President Bush's veto, which he issued Tuesday, of the $150.7 billion FY 2008 Labor, Health and Human Services and Education appropriations bill. That attempt did not secure support from two-thirds of the House and failed on a vote of 277-141.

All of this action is nothing compared with the behind-the-scenes scheming that went on all week. Congressional leadership and appropriators worked all week to devise a strategy for enacting federal spending plans for FY 2008 that met Democratic priorities while also winning approval from the White House. A number of rumors were reported, and it seems the schemers changed tactics a number of times. As of Friday, it is being reported that the White House has reacted "coolly" to a strategy that would "split the difference" between White House and Democratic budget plans. Despite this news, House and Senate appropriators are reportedly coming up with an omnibus spending bill totaling $484.2 billion. This measure will encompass the 11 spending bills that haven't been enacted. (President Bush signed the defense spending bill earlier this week.) This number is $10.6 billion less than Democrats had hoped for before veto threats finally forced them to reconsider. It has been reported that they are hoping enough moderate Republicans will tire of the fight when they return from their break to either persuade the president to negotiate or vote to override a veto.

Although it's not clear what this plan might ultimately mean for spending on important education programs, David Obey (D-Wis.), House Appropriations Committee chairman, continues to be frustrated by the situation. When asked about the White House's chilly reaction to a "split the difference" resolution this week, he said that if Republicans do not support the proposed compromise and "continue to follow the president's budget priorities like lemmings, the result is likely to be even worse."


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