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Senate Ups the Ante

March 10, 2006

The U.S. Senate Budget Committee on Thursday approved a spending blueprint for the 2007 fiscal year that would give lawmakers in charge of federal education and biomedical research programs more money to work with than President Bush proposed.

And the measure not only urges Senate appropriators to fully fund the administration's American Competitiveness Initiative -- which would increase spending on the National Science Foundation and other research programs -- but it also recommends that lawmakers provide a $1 billion more to the National Institutes of Health than the White House suggested last month.

Each year, Congress passes a budget resolution that sets the broad outlines for federal spending for the year. While the resolution usually provides little in the way of details, it does tend to set ceilings for how much money the various House and Senate appropriations subcommittees will have to allocate to the programs under their jurisdictions, and the size of the total pool of funds that advocates for those various programs are fighting for a piece of.

So particularly in times of flat or even declining federal spending, the allocations to those various categories are closely watched.

This is clearly one of those times, given the budget the Bush administration proposed last month, which would eliminate numerous loan, outreach and job training programs dear to colleges and hold most other financial aid programs to their 2006 levels.

But Republican leaders in Congress took something of a pounding last year in many quarters for enacting a federal budget that reined in spending on many popular social programs, including education ones. And in a year in which a third of senators and all members of the House of Representatives are up for re-election, Wednesday's party-line vote on budget resolution provided an early indication that lawmakers are wary of imposing further cuts. (The House Budget Committee has postponed work on its version of the budget resolution, amid reports that conservative and moderate Republicans are at odds over how aggressively to cut spending.)

The budget plan put forward by the Senate panel's Republican leader, Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, included $55.8 billion for the Education Department, which is $1.5 billion more than President Bush proposed in his 2007 budget. College lobbyists had few details late yesterday on whether the Senate plan intended to restore funds for key programs that would be eliminated or slashed by the Bush budget, including the Perkins Loan Program that provides low-interest loans for needy students, the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Program, and the GEAR UP and Upward Bound programs that help disadvantaged middle and high school students prepare for college.

Language in Gregg's bill said that the $1.5 billion was aimed at "increasing funding for programs aimed at assisting lower income and disabled students, but the only funds it specifically mentioned were for special education programs.

The panel also rejected, along party lines, an amendment by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) that would have increased the amount of funds allocated to the Senate appropriations subcommittee specifically to restore the two Perkins programs, GEAR UP, and several other programs.

But the Senate panel's actions on science programs were much more heartening to college and university officials. Gregg's bill "assumes an increase of $1 billion over the president's request" for the NIH, for a total of $29.6 billion, which would allow spending for the agency to "keep pace with biomedical inflation."

And it also assumes "full funding" of Bush's request for the NSF and the Energy Department's Office of Science, which it said is "critical in supporting world-class federal research facilities and advancing innovation and discovery."

Nils Hasselmo, president of the Association of American Universities, called the Senate's resolution "the best budget for American competitiveness and innovation in several years, and it is all the more impressive for coming at a time of serious spending constraints."

He added: "We commend Chairman Gregg and other Committee members for approving a budget based on an understanding that the nation’s global economic leadership and national security depend upon a renewed commitment to scientific research and improved education at all levels."

 

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