Lawmakers from the U.S. Senate and House completed work Wednesday on a compromise spending bill for education, labor and health programs, and in most cases, their compromises worked against programs important to colleges. Higher education lobbyists said late Wednesday that they are planning an all-out fight -- although stopping the bill's momentum, as Congress pushes hard to conclude its business for the year, may be difficult.
The Senate Appropriations Committee said in a news release Wednesday evening that the 2006 spending bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education drafted by a House-Senate conference committee would keep the maximum Pell Grant at $4,050, the same level it is at this year.
The version of the spending bill passed by the House in June would have increased the Pell maximum to $4,100, but the conferees went with the Senate version, which kept the Pell flat. The compromise measure would provide $4.3 billion to wipe out a shortfall in the Pell program that has limited the spending power of the grants, after the conference panel had contemplated raiding those funds to pay for other programs in the bill.
Similarly, the compromise measure would set spending for the National Institutes of Health at $28.617 billion. That is about $250 million more than the agency is receiving this year, but a far cry from the $29.415 billion that the Senate bill would have provided. The House-passed bill had called for giving the NIH $28.5 million.
The compromise bill would sustain several student aid and other programs that President Bush's 2006 budget called for eliminating, including the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Program and the Gear Up and TRIO programs for disadvantaged students. But to the dismay of college officials, the legislation would keep all student aid programs at their 2005 levels, which means that if it passes as is, the programs will have lost ground against inflation.
In addition, the compromise measure would, as the House bill recommended, rescind $125 million that Congress gave to the Labor Department in 2005 to allocate to community colleges as part of President Bush's new Community College Initiative. The compromise bill would provide $125 million in new funds for the program, half of what the president requested for 2006.
Interestingly, one other decision the conferees made to limit spending in the bill -- wiping out all "pork barrel" funds requested that individual members of Congress sought for their pet projects -- may undermine overall support for the bill in Congress, which could help college groups to fight the bill.