Dems Fight for Education Dept.

Senate Democrats said Thursday they will mount a filibuster, with the votes to sustain it, if the Labor-HHS appropriations conference report contains a plan to convert many elementary and secondary education programs into a block grant.

"We intend, as 43 Democratic senators, to ensure that the Department of Education is not abolished through some back door attempt in an appropriations bill," Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said in releasing a "Dear Conferee" letter.

The Senate version of the bill includes a plan by Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., to convert billions of dollars in education funds into a single block grant. Senate Democrats have argued the plan would eliminate any assurance that federal education funds are spent on the neediest students. However, Republicans counter the proposal gives local school districts more flexibility in determining how the money is spent. The House-passed version of the Labor-HHS bill does not include the provision. Conferees on the Labor-HHS bill are scheduled to hold a preliminary meeting today.

Dorgan argued that the block grant proposal should not have been included in an appropriations measure, contending it was passed after an "anemic debate." He warned, "There will be fierce resistance the next time this is discussed."

Discussing the filibuster threat, Gorton said, "That, under the rules of the Senate, is their right." He said, however, that Democrats risk harming health and other programs if they block the Labor-HHS bill. He said he expects conferees will have "sufficient" time to discuss the impact of his amendment. Democratic and Republican senators said Senate Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., has not indicated how strongly he will fight for the Senate position in conference.

However, House Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Porter, R-Ill., said the filibuster threat will have an impact on conferees.

"If they're going to filibuster the bill over there, it makes it very difficult to include it," Porter said, later adding, "If Sen. Specter tells me he can't pass the bill ... I'm going to pay a great deal of attention to what he tells me."

Gorton and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., charged that the Education Department is providing states with misleading information about the impact of the amendment.

They said there is a "hold harmless" provision that guarantees that states will not have their education funds cut, although individual school districts could lose funds.

Hagel said he was "appalled" by the Education Department's "distortion."

"I have never seen such arrogance like this," Hagel charged.

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