This is crunch time in Congress, the point in every year when lawmakers seem to realize how much they have yet to accomplish and how comparatively little time is left in the legislative year in which to do it. And so it was that on Tuesday, issues important to colleges and students were hashed out in several bills on the floor of the House of Representatives, and college lobbyists and leaders prepared for the possibility that the full Senate could take up the granddaddy of higher education measures -- budget cutting legislation that would shift billions in lender profits to student aid -- as soon as today.
Most of Tuesday's developments revolved around efforts in the House to complete work on the 12 spending bills that Congress must pass each year to keep the government operating. The House began (but did not complete) work Tuesday on the appropriations measure that most affects higher education, H.R. 3043, which would finance the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, among others, in the 2008 fiscal year. It finances an enormous range of programs important to colleges and universities -- most student financial aid programs, biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health, and job training programs at community colleges, to name a few. As crafted this month by the House Appropriations Committee, the bill would increase the maximum Pell Grant to $4,700, a $390 increase over 2007, and lift funding for the National Institutes of Health by 2.6 percent.
The House began its work on the education and labor spending bill -- work that is expected to continue through today and possibly tomorrow -- under the promise of a veto from President Bush. A Statement of Administration Policy issued by the White House on Tuesday said the president "strongly opposes" the legislation because it includes an "irresponsible and excessive level of spending" -- nearly 5 percent more than the government spent on comparable programs in 2007, and far more than President Bush proposed spending in 2008.
Bush also said he would veto the bill if it contained an amendment (like that contained in a parallel spending measure in the Senate) that would expand federal research on embryonic stem cells. Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, noted during Tuesday's debate that while he favored stem cell research, the House measure did not contain such a provision.
A slew of higher ed-related amendments are expected on the House bill, including one that would prohibit the Education Department from using any funds in the bill to carry out changes it has proposed for the Upward Bound program, which helps low-income students prepare for college. On Tuesday, lawmakers debated (but did not vote on) an amendment that would cut some funds from the AmeriCorps community service program and transfer them to the TRIO programs for low-income students and training programs for geriatric medicine.
Before diving into the education and labor spending bill, the House considered a measure to fund the Energy Department and water-related programs. Higher education factored into that debate primarily because it became a target for Republican efforts to try to rein in spending on "directed spending," the new euphemism for what others prefer to call legislative "earmarks" or "pork barrel spending."
Two Republican lawmakers, Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Rep. Jeb Hersaling of Texas, sought to eliminate funds requested by individual lawmakers for their local colleges -- Flake taking aim at $1 million grant for the Maricopa Community College District, and Hersaling gunning to jettison money for an environmental science center at the University of Dubuque, a science center at Emmanuel College in Massachusetts, a science and technology effort among several South Carolina black colleges, and biology lab equipment at Roosevelt University, in Illinois.
"There are so many great colleges, so many great universities, across this great nation," Hersaling said to his colleagues. "How do you get into the business of subsidizing some and not subsidizing others?" Hersaling said he objected generally to Congressional efforts to direct funds to specific groups, companies and colleges at a time of increasingly tight federal budgets. "Where does it all stop?" he asked rhetorically, answering with: "Private educational institutions are a good [place to] start."
Lawmakers who sponsored the projects for colleges rallied to their defense, with Rep. Michael Capuono (D-Mass.) invoking "Sister Janet," a reference to Sister Janet Eisner, president of Emmanuel College. "Where is the next generation of scientists coming from if we don't help?" he asked, advocating for Emmanuel's Center for Science Partnership.
All of the anti-pork amendments went down to defeat as lawmakers passed the energy measure by a 312-112 margin.
As the House slogged through its appropriations measures, the Senate seemed poised to take up budget reconciliation legislation on student aid as soon as today. The Senate is expected to take up the bill -- which would provide $17.3 billion in new financial assistance for needy students and squeeze $18.3 billion out of student loan company profits -- if debate over a Defense Department policy bill stalls.
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