WASHINGTON -- A Senate panel wavered a bit from its House of Representatives counterpart, producing a 2011 funding bill Tuesday that aims to protect Pell Grants from cuts -- but doesn't fully fund the program -- and boosts funding to the National Institutes of Health.
At a brief drafting session, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies approved a bill that provides $169.6 billion in discretionary funding, including $66.4 billion for the Education Department.
“I believe this is a good bill,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the subcommittee’s chairman. “It responds to the urgent economic needs of the American people, it reduces wasteful spending and it gives states incentives to make needed reforms.”
Harkin and the other Democrats on the panel voted to move the bill along to the full appropriations committee for consideration on Thursday afternoon. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), the senior member of his party on the panel, voted against it. The 12 Republican members of the full committee have vowed to oppose all appropriations bills.
As it stands, the bill includes just short of $19.5 billion for student financial aid programs, including $17.6 billion for the Pell program, which would maintain maximum discretionary Pell funding at $4,860 per student. Subcommittee members said the money provided in the legislation would maintain the current 2010-11 maximum Pell Grant of $5,550 in 2011-12, with the help of mandatory funds that were provided through last year's Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act .
The NIH’s budget would be nudged up $1 billion to $32 billion for 2011 -- the same level of funding approved by the House and requested by the Obama administration.
Still unresolved is the $5.7 billion Pell shortfall, which legislation approved by the House of Representatives’ appropriations committee would fully fund . The House tried to address $5 billion of the shortfall this month in a supplemental war spending bill that also included funding for key domestic programs, but the Senate rejected that bill last week in favor of a slimmed-down version that focuses on military spending. On Tuesday, the House reluctantly approved the Senate's version of the bill, devoid of the extra Pell funds and $23 billion that would have helped states fend off budget cuts for K-12.
As in the House bill, the Senate bill would cut funding for the Perkins loan program to zero. But the Senate bill does include an additional $15 million for the TRIO program, which promotes access for disadvantaged students. Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) would be flat funded.
In its budget, the Obama administration proposed ending the $64 million Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnership (LEAP) program, and the House committee’s bill went along with that request. The Senate bill, on the other hand, maintains the program with level funding, much to the delight of Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a longtime supporter of the program.
Though the picture isn’t all that pretty, it could always be worse, said Cyndy Littlefield, director of federal relations at the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. “This is a time in which we need to be grateful for maintaining funding for our programs,” she said. “But we’re also painfully aware that Pell Grants need a lot of attention to be fully funded.”
Last year's appropriations bill didn't clear both chambers  until December, and Harkin confirmed that this year's bill won't be resolved until at least then. "To be frank about it, this bill probably won't see the light of day until December, maybe January." That leaves plenty of time to figure out a solution for Pell.