OK, now what?
A unified higher education lobbying front got what it wanted Thursday, as the House of Representatives rejected a compromise 2006 spending bill  for education and biomedical research programs that called for flat funds for student aid and cuts in a few programs important to colleges.
Twenty-two Republicans, many of them unhappy not because of spending cuts but because the legislation had been stripped of $1 billion in member-sponsored "pork barrel" earmarks, broke ranks with their party's leaders to join all 201 Democrats and the chamber's one Independent in opposing the measure, to the satisfaction of college lobbyists.
But in the enormously chaotic climate that marks Capitol Hill these days -- in which the traditional appropriations process, the "budget reconciliation" process and hurricane cleanup are interacting in a combustible and messy way -- it is not at all clear what the defeat of the legislation will mean, and whether what comes next will be better or worse for colleges and students. (After the surprising defeat of the spending bill, House Republican leaders seemed to have restored order in the wee hours of Friday morning by wrangling enough votes, after 10 days of arm-twisting, to pass their budget reconciliation bill, which wrings $14.3 billion from the student loan programs.)
College groups were unanimous, and vocal, in expressing disdain for the 2006 spending bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, which members of a House-Senate conference committee released on Wednesday. "This is a bad bill for higher education and biomedical research," Barry Toiv, director of communications and public affairs at the Association of American Universities, said simply.
Specifically, college leaders were concerned that the compromise bill would have left the maximum Pell Grant at $4,050 for the fourth straight year (instead of the $50 increase that the version of the appropriations bill that the House passed in July would have provided) and kept funding levels for all other student aid programs at last year's levels.
"It is ironic that Congress is putting barriers in the path of students who are already making great sacrifices in order to go to college, while at the same time, all over the Hill there are meetings, hearings and discussions about how to compete more effectively in the global knowledge economy," the Student Aid Alliance, a coalition of college associations, said in a letter to lawmakers Thursday.
While spending for the National Institutes of Health would have risen slightly under the bill, by about $250 million, to $28.617 billion, Toiv's group and officials from the Association of American Medical Colleges said the increase was far from sufficient to keep the nation's biomedical research infrastructure healthy.
"The conference agreement’s proposal for NIH falls nearly $800 million short of the level needed to meet inflation," Jordan J. Cohen, president of the medical college association, wrote in a letter to members of Congress before Thursday's vote. "At a time when we face major new health challenges, now is not the time to weaken this nation’s investment in medical research."
The medical college group was also concerned that the bill would slash spending for a set of programs  aimed at increasing and diversifying the pool of health care providers. The measure would have provided $94 million for the Health Resources and Service Administration’s health professions programs, down from the $299 million they are receiving this year. Funds to train health workers in geriatrics and in rural areas would have been wiped out entirely, while several other programs would have been cut significantly.
“Eliminating these programs will seriously impair federal efforts to increase the supply and diversity of the health care workforce and provide access to quality health care for all segments of the population,” Cohen wrote.
Other groups were seriously unhappy, too. Community college officials, for instance, were incensed that the members of the House-Senate conference committee had supported a proposal in the House's version of the spending bill to rescind $125 million in funds that Congress provided to the Labor Department in 2005 to carry out President Bush's much-touted Community College Initiative. The compromise measure would have provided $125 million for the program for 2006, half of what President Bush had requested for it.
Thursday's defeat of the compromise appropriations bill leaves the budgets for student aid and other college programs with an uncertain fate. Also on Thursday, the House passed a "continuing resolution" that will provide funds to allow programs for which Congress has not yet passed spending bills for the 2006 fiscal year (which started October 1) to continue to operate through December 17, buying more time for lawmakers to figure out just what to do next.
College leaders hope that Republican leaders will fail or give up on their effort to pass a $50 billion "budget reconciliation" bill and enact a $70 billion tax-cut measure, which are two of the factors creating the climate in which they deem the bare-bones budget for education and health programs to be necessary. While the House passed $50 billion in reconciliation savings in the wee hours of Friday morning, the Senate has approved just $35 billion in budget reductions, leaving the outlook for a compromise reconciliation measure between the two chambers cloudy.
In its letter Thursday, the Student Aid Alliance urged Congress to "re-examine its budget priorities and rework" the education appropriations bill. If that were to happen, more money might be available for college programs.
Just as likely, though, is that Congress fails to come to agreement and winds up enacting some kind of omnibus appropriations measure that extends this year's spending levels through next fall. That might not be much worse for colleges than the budget bill defeated Thursday, but it isn't much better, either. Another option, which could be even more unpalatable, would be a sweeping bill that imposes an across-the-board cut on all federal programs.