Big Vote on the U.S. Budget

Senate to consider $7 billion increase for education and health programs after rejecting bid to add $6.3 billion for Pell and voc ed.
March 15, 2006

A wild day of Senate voting on the federal budget resolution left advocates for student aid disappointed, but set up another vote on Wednesday that has major implications for financial aid, biomedical research, and vocational education programs.

The Senate is voting this 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 allocate to the programs under their jurisdictions. 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.

But while the Senate panel's approach called for restoring several key education and job training programs that the Bush budget would slash or eliminate altogether -- including the Perkins Loan Program, the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Program, and the GEAR UP, Talent Search and Upward Bound Programs -- college officials and many lawmakers say the Senate plan would still force Senate appropriators to shortchange student aid programs and the National Institutes of Health.

So as the full Senate began debating the budget resolution this week, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers offered two amendments aimed at ensuring more funds for the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies.

The proposal most strongly favored by college groups was sponsored by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Susan M. Collins (R-Me.), and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), which would have increased the allocation for education and health programs by $6.3 billion, enough 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.

"At times when we have been challenged historically, the United States has responded by investing in education," Kennedy said in urging his colleagues to vote for the amendment. Instead, at a time of heightened competition from China and India, the country is disinvesting, he said.

But when the votes were counted, the Senate split 50-50 (a majority was needed for passage) -- with one key voter, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), head of the Senate spending panel for education and health programs, reluctantly voting No. That's not because he opposed the amendment's goals, he said, but because he preferred his own amendment -- to be voted on Wednesday -- that would increase 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. (The Specter amendment would not provide enough funds to increase the maximum Pell Grant, though, it seems.)

"Much as I would like to have voted" for the Kennedy/Collins amendment, Specter said in introducing his own amendment and explaining his No vote, "it seemed to me an impossibility for Senator Kennedy's amendment to be adopted and to have this be adopted, too." He described his vote on the Kennedy amendment as "very painful" -- a sentiment that college and student lobbyists shared.

"Today the Senate chose once again to ignore the issue of college affordability facing millions of students and parents across the country," said Luke Swarthout, higher education associate at the State PIRGs Higher Education Project.

College officials hold out hope, though, that Specter's gamble will pay off in Senate passage of his amendment on Wednesday. Most Democrats and moderate Republicans (including backers of the Kennedy amendment) are likely to support the Specter measure. But several Republicans, including Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), head of the Senate Budget Committee, said they opposed the Specter measure because it would produce the $7 billion in additional funds by borrowing from future years. "This is basically creating a problem for the next budget," said Gregg, who said the approach would put the Senate on the "thin ice of budgeting."


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