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Rare Budget Win for Colleges

March 17, 2006

The U.S. Senate on Thursday agreed to amend its budget blueprint by adding $7 billion to the funds available for education, health and labor programs, a measure for which supporters of student aid and biomedical research had lobbied intensely.

College groups heaped praise on the Senate for the rare legislative triumph. But it is important to keep in mind that the money that would be provided by the Senate amendment would still leave most student aid programs in a hole from two years ago -- if it materializes when Congress actually allocates funds come next summer and fall.

The Senate has been voting all week on its version of the budget resolution for the 2007 fiscal year, which sets ceilings for how much money the various appropriations subcommittees will have to award to the programs under their jurisdictions, but does not dictate exactly how they must spend the funds. Last week, the Senate Budget Committee approved a spending blueprint that would give lawmakers in charge of federal education and biomedical research programs more money to work with than President Bush had proposed in his budget in February, which urged the elimination of numerous key college programs and budget cuts or freezes for others.

On Tuesday, to the dismay of college officials, the Senate rejected an amendment to the budget resolution that would have directed $6.3 billion more to the panel that allocates funds for education and health than the Budget Committee had recommended. That amendment, sponsored by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Susan M. Collins (R-Maine), would have provided enough new money to raise the maximum Pell Grant to $4,500 (from the current $4,050), restore all of the Bush administration’s proposed cuts to college programs, and increase funds for graduate education and other key programs.

That amendment failed in large part because Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who heads the Senate appropriations panel that oversees education, health and labor programs, agreed to vote No in hopes of ensuring passage of his own amendment. It called for increasing the allocation to his subcommittee by $7 billion, which he said he would try to use to reject the Bush cuts to education programs and increase spending on the NIH by $2 billion over what the president proposed, or $1 billion more than the Senate Budget Committee recommended. (The Specter amendment would not provide enough funds to increase the maximum Pell Grant, though.)

Although they had a hard time getting terrifically enthused about an amendment that would essentially turn the clock back to 2005 (with a small inflationary increase) -- before a year's worth of cuts in spending levels for most higher education programs -- groups that lobby for student aid and especially for biomedical research fought hard for the Specter amendment.

The major college associations urged presidents and others to call their senators to push for the measure. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, which promotes spending on health research, said it had organized a campaign that flooded Capitol Hill with 8,400 letters from researchers. "When that many American scientists take time away from their labs and clinics -- where they’re conducting life-saving cutting-edge research -- to send a message to Congress, it is time for lawmakers to listen,” said Jon Retzlaff, the group's director of legislative relations.

When the votes were cast Thursday afternoon, 28 Republicans joined every Democrat and the Senate's lone independent in supporting the Specter measure. College leaders hope that might portend that Congressional Republicans recognize that further cuts in spending on education and other social programs could be dangerous to their political health in an election year. The last time Republican leaders heard that message from the electorate, in the late 1990s, federal spending on college programs grew rapidly.

But some Republicans might have voted for Specter's amendment because they knew it was going to pass, and was therefore "safe" to vote for without angering party leaders. And it is also important to remember that Thursday's vote doesn't necessarily mean the funds will materialize: While the Senate measure (if its approach were to be matched by the House of Representatives) would set a ceiling for how much money over all would go toward health, education and labor agencies in 2007, it does not in any way ensure that Congressional appropriators must divide the funds among various programs in the way the budget resolution suggests. So money that the budget resolution now suggests directing toward student aid or the National Institutes of Health could end up supporting workers' pensions or covering fuel costs for low-income Americans.

 

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