WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Senate Democrats and the White House sparred on Tuesday over funding for a far-reaching education reform bill, jeopardizing President Bush's first legislative priority.
Democrats want to sharply increase funding for a range of elementary and secondary education programs, and have threatened to block Senate debate on the bill until an agreement is reached with the White House.
“You cannot educate on the cheap,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health and Education Committee.
Despite negotiations with the White House over funding, Kennedy said, “We're not within a range to think that we could bridge that gap at the present time.”
Under a tentative accord between Democrats and the White House, the Senate bill would require mandatory student testing, help children learn to read by the third grade and give states more leeway in spending federal education funds signature issues for Bush during the presidential campaign.
The bill does not, however, incorporate Bush's hotly contested private school voucher initiative, which would have allowed students in poor schools to receive $1,500 in federal aid to attend other public or private schools.
Instead, it would allow students in failing schools to use some federal funding to pay for private tutoring and to transfer to another public school.
Despite the tentative agreement on reforms, Democrats have dug in over funding, and have threatened to use procedural rules to block the bill's consideration. With the Senate divided 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, Republicans are unlikely to garner the 60 votes needed to break a vote-blocking filibuster.
Specifically, Democrats want to increase fiscal 2002 funding for elementary and secondary education programs by $8.8 billion over the 2001 total of $18 billion. The White House was pressing for a much smaller increase of $1.3 billion to $2 billion.
Kennedy said Democrats were also seeking a $6.4 billion increase for programs targeting students in low-income areas, following by increases of $5.5 billion each year for the next four years.
So far the White House has balked at those increases, insisting that Bush's budget provided enough funding.
“The budget the president proposed on education already increases education by billions of dollars,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. “So, as we work with the Congress, the president and the negotiators are going to be guided by an approach that focuses on reforms and not just throwing money at education.”
Despite the gap on funding, Democratic and Republican leaders expressed optimism an agreement would be reached so the Senate can begin debate on the school bill as early as Wednesday. It was initially scheduled for Monday.
“We don't want confrontation. We want to be able to see if we can resolve this,” Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said.
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