The U.S. Senate late Thursday approved legislation  to finance several federal agencies 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.
With passage of the measure, legislators from the Senate and the House of Representatives will meet next month to try to craft a compromise between their parallel bills to finance the Education, Health and Human Services, and Labor Departments, which differ significantly on several counts. Also troubling college officials is the prospect that Congressional leaders, facing unexpected costs of the cleanup of Hurricane Katrina and Rita and still trying to provide tax cuts, could follow through on their threat of a 2 percent across the board cut in spending.
The full Senate made few changes to the bill passed in July  by the Senate Appropriations Committee, and few major changes affected higher education. On Tuesday, the Senate voted down an amendment offered by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) that would have increased the maximum Pell Grant to $4,250. Senators rejected it because Kennedy had not proposed cuts to other programs to offset the costs of increasing the Pell.
The Senate did approve an amendment sponsored by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) that would increase funds for the TRIO programs for disadvantaged students by $5 million. Landrieu's original amendment would have directed the additional TRIO funds to students affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but she broadened it in the face of opposition.
The Pell Grant level set in the Senate bill is $100 below what President Bush proposed and $50 less than the $4,100 amount set in the House bill.  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. The House measure would set NIH spending at $28.507 million, $3 million less than President Bush proposed.
Among other things, the bill would also:
- Provide $125 million for the new community-based job training initiative that President Bush has touted -- half of the $250 million the president requested. The House-passed bill would also provide $125 million for 2006, but would rescind $125 million in funds that were allocated to the Labor Department in 2005 to allot to community colleges.
- Restore $250 million that President Bush 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. The House bill would cut the $250 million from the programs.
- 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 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.