Federal Dateline

Striking a Delicate Balance

by Mary Conk

After a tumultuous election, the stage was set for the 107th Congress. An unprecedented 50/50 split in the Senate and a 12-seat margin in the House of Representatives created a political environment teetering on the brink of partisan battles.

Add to the mix the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the pre-eminent role of education during the past election season and you're left with a dynamic political climate.

From the moment President Bush released his blueprint for education, "No Child Left Behind," rumblings could be heard on both ends of the political spectrum. Whether the issue was mandatory testing in grades 3 through 8 or federally funded vouchers, the administration fielded criticism from both the right and the left.

Congress was put into an awkward position. While everyone in education favors a president who places schooling at the top of the domestic policy agenda, there is tremendous pressure on a new administration.

Setting the Tone

The Senate set the bipartisan tone for the year. With a shared desire to emerge from the committee process with a bipartisan bill, Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont, who was the Republican chair of the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee at the time, and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., moved to the middle of the political spectrum and made important concessions from the outset.

With the future of the ESEA authorization in mind, Jeffords dropped the more contentious issues from the president's original bill, namely vouchers and a block grant for governors to disperse known as Straight A's. The Senate committee proceeded with a more bipartisan measure that maintained many of the president's key provisions.

On the House side, President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" blueprint was presented by the Republican Caucus. H.R. 1 included all of the president's elements, including annual testing of every student in two subjects in grades 3 through 8 and the controversial elements that had been stripped from the Senate committee bill.

As the new chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, had a daunting task before him. Not only did Democratic committee members oppose many elements of H.R. 1, so did conservatives in the GOP who were uncomfortable about a federal role in national testing.

Boehner was faced with the same predicament as his Senate counterpart. No matter what Boehner was willing to do, the conservatives were likely to oppose it for fundamental reasons. The House committee process started with a bill resulting from bipartisan negotiations that included voucher provisions. In one day of committee action and with help from moderate Republicans, all voucher amendments were struck from the bill. Now Boehner really had what he wanted, a bipartisan bill that contained three-quarters of the president's original plan.

It was not easy to keep the conservatives engaged during the bill markup, as they watched everything they wanted get stripped from the bill while leaving intact the nationwide testing provision. Boehner lived up to his new role and moved a bill out of committee in only 2½ days of debate.

Fear of Compromise

On the Senate side, Kennedy and Jeffords realized their bipartisan committee bill was never going to make it to the floor. In the Senate, it was the Democrats who would have trouble holding their caucus together. Democratic leadership, including Kennedy, feared the New Democrats, a moderate wing of the party, would compromise with the GOP and the Bush administration.

Kennedy did the only thing he could by entering negotiations with his colleagues across the aisle. In exchange for a significant education funding increase, Kennedy and the New Democrats, led by Sens. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., sought middle ground on the president's most controversial proposals.

After weeks of late-night and weekend negotiations, the senators compromised, but the funding increase never materialized. From the beginning it was assumed that all parties were negotiating in good faith, yet the Democrats made policy concessions without achieving the expected funding reward.

The Republicans were meticulous in ruling the negotiations. They maintained control of all of the policy negotiations while the administration stalled on the funding requests. The GOP include many of the issues Republicans cared about most deeply, including private tutoring for students in failing schools and a pilot Straight A's provision.

At the least expected moment, Jeffords made a decision that carried bigger political ramifications. He announced on May 24 his decision to leave the Republican Party and become an independent, bringing the Democrats into the majority in the Senate for the first time since 1994.

As the House passed its education bill and the Senate looked to continue debate on its version, both houses worked to exercise a delicate balance, keeping their bipartisan coalitions from the brink of destruction.

Mary Conk is a legislative specialist at AASA. E-mail mconk@aasa.org