Senate leaders on Wednesday looked poised to reach an agreement on a two-year budget deal that would lift spending caps put in place at federal agencies by Congress in 2011. The lifting of those caps has long been sought by higher ed institutions who say they threaten sustainable funding of research.
The agreement would add $4 billion in new money for student aid, according to a brief summary document circulated on Capitol Hill Wednesday, and boost spending on the National Institutes of Health by $2 billion. Not included in the deal is a fix for the group of young immigrants known as Dreamers, who have faced uncertainty over their status since President Trump announced in September that he would wind down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. DACA provides temporary protection against deportation and work authorization to hundreds of thousands of young immigrants -- including many college students -- who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
The passage of the plan is not guaranteed -- House leaders will have to corral support after it passes the Senate -- but higher ed groups appeared to breathe a sigh of relief that the government would avoid another budget showdown, even as some expressed frustration over DACA.
"We don't have all the details, but it's clear that it includes more money for nondefense spending, including NIH and student aid," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government relations and public affairs at the American Council on Education. "And it's also a two-year agreement, so the federal government will not have to go through this drawn-out budgetary dance next year."
Hartle said his organization was disappointed, but not surprised, that DACA was left out of the deal.
News reports indicated that the budget deal would be accompanied by a new spending agreement keeping the government open past midnight tonight, when federal agencies are set to run out of money.
Exactly how the budget agreement will address student aid is at this point entirely unclear -- typically that means spending on grant or loan programs. But the boost in spending on NIH will mean three consecutive years that the federal government's top research body sees an annual increase of $2 billion in federal support. The agency sends about 80 percent of its total funding annually to colleges and universities across the country in the form of competitive grants.
This week, a group of nearly 100 research universities and scientific associations wrote to congressional leaders urging them to lift federal spending caps and make renewed investments in scientific research.
"Robust and sustained federal investment in scientific research is essential to strengthening our economic and national security," the groups wrote. "These investments support advanced training for students at U.S. universities and national laboratories whom businesses actively recruit for high-quality American jobs."
The Association of American Universities, which represents the country's top research institutions, said it hoped Congress could move forward on the bipartisan Senate blueprint to avoid a second government shutdown since January.
"We’re pleased with the proposed increases to NIH and affordability programs, and are looking forward to seeing the details of the plan," said Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for the association. "Our hope is that with a workable deal in place Congress can focus on a permanent bipartisan DACA solution."
Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee, said she was pleased Republicans had agreed to much needed relief for students and borrowers.
“Students should be able to earn a college degree -- especially low-income students and those who have dedicated their careers to public service, including teachers and first responders -- without crushing financial burden,” she said. “This budget deal is a step in the right direction to addressing our country’s massive student debt crisis, and I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues to ensure we’re spending this money in the smartest way possible to truly help struggling students.”
Prolonged Uncertainty Over DACA
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had insisted that DACA would not be included in a budget deal but also promised to schedule floor time for the issue after a budget deal was reached. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that although the budget deal includes many Democratic priorities -- including “billions in funding to fight opioids, to strengthen our veterans and the NIH, to build job-creating rural infrastructure and broadband, and to fund access to childcare and quality higher education” -- she cannot support it without a similar commitment for a floor vote on DACA from House Speaker Paul Ryan.
“This morning, we took a measure of our caucus, because the package does nothing to advance bipartisan legislation to protect Dreamers in the House. Without a commitment from Speaker Ryan comparable to the commitment from Leader McConnell, this package does not have my support,” said Pelosi, who gave a marathon eight-hour speech on the House floor Wednesday calling for an immigration vote.
“A moment of truth is at hand,” Frank Sharry, the executive director of the group America’s Voice, which advocates for Dreamers, said in a statement in which he urged lawmakers to oppose any spending bill that doesn't provide for Dreamers. Addressing Democrats, Sharry said, “the path you set out has been clear: since Republicans need Democratic votes to approve must-pass spending bills, especially on the spending caps, your leverage will be used to include Dreamer relief. With Republicans needing your votes now, it will be a path to nowhere if you don’t stand firm.”
David Oxtoby, the president emeritus of Pomona College and a founding president of the Presidents' Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, said he was concerned that time is running out for Congress to pass a legislative solution for Dreamers. The DACA program is slated to end March 5, though a court order temporarily blocking the Trump administration’s decision to end the program may keep it alive longer.
“We have hundreds of thousands of young people, including many students, who are really relying on leadership to do something about this,” said Oxtoby. “What I would be most in favor of is a clean Dreamers bill, one that was just proposed and voted on by itself. That would be the ideal solution. But I’m worried that we’re going to be losing leverage if we don’t connect this to some of the other high-priority goals in Congress.”
Nancy Cantor, the chancellor of Rutgers University Newark, said she remains hopeful that Congress will take up separate legislation for Dreamers after passing a budget bill. "That’s all we can hope for because it’s so important," she said. "There are many good things for higher education in that bipartisan bill -- I am not discounting it -- but it is also the case that higher education will suffer, as will the knowledge economy, without a deal for Dreamers. We just have to do that, and there’s quite a bit of bipartisan support."
One variable in reaching any DACA deal is the role of Trump, whose positions and public statements have shifted since he announced the end of the program in September. After previously signaling he was open to whatever immigration deal lawmakers brought him, he has taken a harder line in recent weeks. An immigration plan proposed by the White House in late January would provide a path to citizenship for Dreamers but only in return for significant increases in spending on border security, including $25 billion for a wall on the southern border with Mexico; the elimination of the diversity visa lottery program; and new restrictions on family-based immigration.
Mildred García, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said the budget agreement is a timely example of how bipartisan cooperation in Congress can produce better outcomes for the American people. But she said with the budget deal done, there was no reason for the wait on a DACA solution.
"Now, having successfully bridged the partisan divide on difficult budgetary matters, I call on this Congress to come together again and resolve the status of the nation’s Dreamers once and for all," she said. "There is no justification for further delays and partisan rancor on resolving an issue on which both sides of the aisle and the vast majority of Americans are in agreement."