Monday, February 16, 2009

Legislative Update: Budget and Appropriations

Education advocates are celebrating Congress' passed of HR 1, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This legislation represents a historic investment in education and other critical domestic programs. With a price tag totaling $790 billion in tax cuts and spending, it is a bill designed to stimulate the economy by creating new jobs through investing in the nation's infrastructure, providing a lifeline to families that have been crushed by the economic downturn and providing emergency funds to states to prevent teacher layoffs, make college more affordable, modernize schools and support other high priority services.

Conference negotiations took place throughout last week. A high stakes game of chicken unfolded between the Obama administration, the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate and three moderate Republican senators who wanted to support the bill but objected to some of the proposed spending. Claiming the price tag was too high and too many of the investments would not stimulate economic recovery, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) joined forces with conservative Democrat Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) to persuade their colleagues to reduce funding in the package by more than $100 billion. Their support was critical to overcoming the 60-vote hurdle the bill required in the Senate. The Senate compromise enraged many House members who thought the price for minimal Republican support was too high.

The bill that was called up on Feb. 13 on the floor of the House of Representatives respected the total funding agreed to by the conferees - $790 billion - but funds shifted dramatically on both the tax and spending side of the equation to accommodate Democratic priorities. For the Department of Education, the bill provides approximately $100 billion in funding. An additional $30 billion supports education-related programs, such as Head Start ($2.1 billion), the Childcare Development Block Grant ($2 billion) and the National Science Foundation ($3 billion). Twenty-five billion dollars more is provided through various bonds for school construction.

The debate on final passage was contentious and highly partisan. In the House, the bill passed on a vote of 246-183 without a single Republican supporting the measure. In the Senate, Collins, Snowe and Specter, who took part in the conference negotiations on HR 1, were the only Republicans who voted in favor of the conference report.

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