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GOP Education Bill Passes Senate Despite Veto Threat

By Janet Hook
Los Angeles Times

Openly defying a veto threat, the Senate Thursday passed sweeping legislation that would give parents a new tax break for school expenses, give states vast new authority to decide how to spend federal education money, and permanently block President Clinton's plan to offer national math and science tests.

Taken in its entirety, the bill amounts to the broadest effort yet by Republicans to push federal education policy in a new direction: to further decentralize power, give parents a wider range of educational choices and allow federal resources to flow more freely to private schools.

"This education bill is a revolutionary education bill," said Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) "It is not nibbling around the edges."

The vote was 5643, with only five Democrats joining 51 Republicans in supporting the bill.

Foes denounced the bill as a repudiation of decades of bipartisan federal policy toward elementary and secondary education, which has focused almost exclusively on supporting public schools.

"This is an incredible departure from the public policy we have built for a generation," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.)

Clinton has promised to veto the bill, which started out as a GOP proposal to let parents set up special tax sheltered savings accounts for education expenses, including tuition for private and parochial elementary and secondary schools. Even that limited proposal was heavily criticized by the White House as an empty gesture that would do little but siphon money away from public school aid and into the pockets of private school families that don't need assistance.

As the Senate revised the measure this week, it has been rendered even more unpalatable to Clinton - and even to some of the handful of Democratic supporters of the savings account measure - with the addition of amendments blocking the president's testing initiative and allowing states to accept federal education aid as block grants. That means that few strings would be attached on how the states could spend the money.

Clinton reiterated his veto threat after the Senate vote. "Instead of working to strengthen public education, the [Senate] bill returns us to the days when Republicans waged a campaign to eliminate the Department of Education," he said. "As I have said before, if this bill reaches my desk, I will veto it because it weakens our commitment to making America's schools the best they can be in the 21st century."

Earlier this week, the Senate rejected - largely along party lines - Clinton's own education proposals, including aid for school construction and teacher recruitment.

The partisan tenor of debate suggested that even though Democrats and Republicans have made education a top priority, both sides seem more interested in drawing distinctions between their parties in an election year than in producing a compromise addressing one of the nation's most pressing concerns.

The House has passed a savings account bill, but without the controversial block-grant and testing amendments. Traditionally, such differences are worked out in a House-Senate conference committee before the measure can be sent to the White House. However, House GOP leaders are considering a procedural move to hasten a confrontation with Clinton: They may simply have the House pass the Senate version of the education bill - block grants, testing ban and all.

"Let the president veto it, we'll move on and both parties will use the thing for political purposes," said one senior House Republican aide.

Some lawmakers - including the handful of Senate Democrats who support the savings account idea - cling to the hope that a compromise can be reached. They envision a bipartisan package that links the savings account measure to such administration education initiatives as aid for school construction and teacher recruitment while dropping the contentious provisions on block grants and testing.

"That's the way to have the result of all this debate be more than noise and issues to carry into the campaign," said Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) a Clinton ally who has been the leading Democratic advocate of savings accounts.

At the starting point of the bill's debate was the proposal, sponsored by Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) that would allow families to save up to $2,000 in a special education savings account.