Almost apologetically, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee endorsed a spending bill  Thursday that would increase spending on the National Institutes of Health by more than a billion dollars but keep the maximum Pell Grant at $4,050, its level this year.
While the legislation restores many of the cuts that President Bush proposed making  in popular higher education programs, lawmakers acknowledged that the budget plan Congress approved in March has ensured that most programs will lose ground against inflation.
"We would like to have done more for these education programs, but we stretched the dollars as far as we could," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, which drafted the legislation on Tuesday  that the full appropriations panel approved Thursday.
The Pell Grant increase approved by the Senate is $100 below what President Bush proposed and $50 less than a parallel bill ( H.R. 3010 ) approved last month by the House of Representatives would provide. Like the House measure, the Senate bill would wipe out a $4.3 billion shortfall in the Pell program that has undermined the spending power of the grants.
The measure would also increase spending on the NIH to $29.415 billion, $905 million more than the president proposed and $1.05 billion more than the agency is receiving this year.
Among other things, the bill would also:
- Join the House measure in financing a new community college job training initiative that President Bush has touted at $125 million — half of the $250 million the president requested.
- Restore $250 million that President Bush and the House had proposed cutting from the Health Resources and Services Administration’s health professions programs, which aim to widen the pipeline and improve the training of physicians and other health care workers in urban and rural areas and in fields such as primary care, geriatrics and allied health.
- Fund at the 2005 levels several education programs that the president would have eliminated or severely cut back, including Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education and the Gear Up and TRIO programs that help disadvantaged students attend and succeed in college.
- Increase spending on Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, which supplement Pell Grants for extremely needy students, by $26 million, to $805 million.
- Wipe out new funds for the Perkins Loan Program, which gives colleges money to lend at a fixed low rate to students from low-income families. The Senate bill, like the House measure, would provide $66 million to colleges to forgive the Perkins Loans of students who enter certain high-need teaching or other fields.
- Provide $546 million for AmeriCorps and the other programs that are part of the National Community Service Act of 1990, nearly $5 million more than the programs are receiving this year.
The legislative report accompanying the bill approved by the Appropriations Committee includes language for federal agency officials on two controversial issues.
It takes issue with guidance that the U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights issued in March on athletics programs’ compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bars gender discrimination at institutions that receive federal aid. The department’s guidance said that colleges could fulfill the law’s requirements for ensuring equitable participation for female athletes by giving their students an e-mail survey asking about their sports interests, which advocates for women said would give colleges an easy way out of complying with the law.
In its instructions to the civil rights office, the committee says it is "concerned that confusion has been created" by the guidance. The committee believes, it says, that "survey results are not sufficient to demonstrate compliance if other evidence exists, such as requests for athletic teams, that contradicts the conclusions drawn from the survey." It urges the department to make clear that colleges must make "good faith efforts to explore" such alternative evidence, and asks the department to prepare a report that examines whether institutions that seek to comply with Title IX by using such surveys also "gather and consider other sources of information for assessing student interest."
The committee also takes issue with President Bush's policy that restricts research involving embryonic stem cells, saying it is "deeply concerned with the slow pace of implementation of the current stem cell policy" and "strongly" urging the president to broaden that policy.