WASHINGTON — Oregon Democrats in the U.S. House said their party leaders should take off the gloves in the fight to restore education funding that was cut from the economic stimulus package in the U.S. Senate.
Oregon Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden both voted for the bill, which passed 61-37 on Tuesday. The bill now goes to a conference committee, where members of both the House and Senate work out differences between the two measures, each of which would cost more than $800 billion.
Central Oregon school officials are watching the debate in the nation’s capital. The difference in funding for education between the House and Senate versions could determine whether schoolchildren in the region attend classes for the full year — or whether summer vacation starts early.
The Senate version of the economic stimulus bill won’t prevent cuts to the school calendar this year, superintendents of Bend-La Pine and Redmond school districts said Tuesday.
The version of the bill approved by the House two weeks ago contained $79 billion for state education programs. However, to satisfy moderate Republicans in the Senate, Democrats reduced money for state education programs to $39 billion and completely cut a fund to pay for school modernization. Senate Democrats needed the moderates to reach 60 votes, which is the number necessary to overcome a filibuster.
Lawmakers weigh in
Those cuts are proof House negotiators shouldn’t let a handful of Republicans dictate how much aid is available for states, Rep. David Wu, D-Portland, said.
“Keeping our schools open until the end of the school year is worth fighting for,” Wu said. “We should not be held hostage by one, two or three votes.”
The total price of the Senate bill, $838 billion, is larger than the $819 billion House version, Wu said, meaning there’s room to increase school funding.
“We’re not talking about different sizes, we’re talking about different priorities,” he said.
Senate Democrats should consider taking even tougher measures, said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield. Democrats wouldn’t need to woo moderate Republicans if they voted to do away with the filibuster, one of the Senate’s oldest and most distinctive procedural maneuvers. It is used to block legislation from coming to a vote, according to the Senate, and is often associated with members speaking for days.
“The alternative the Democrats have over there is act like a representative democratic body and change the rules,” DeFazio said.
When Republicans held a Senate majority in 2005, they proposed changing Senate rules to end filibusters to overcome Democratic opposition to President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees. At the time it was dubbed the “nuclear option.”
Barring that, the Senate should require Republicans to actually filibuster — that is speak continually on the Senate floor to block debate, DeFazio said. In most cases today, the minority party merely needs to signal the intent to filibuster to require a 60-vote majority.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland, shared his colleagues’ criticism of the Senate bill. Cutting funding for medical benefits, school construction and safety net programs to make way for more tax cuts won’t create more jobs, he said.
“If you’re talking about people in need, this is a hard sell,” Blumenauer said. “We should have a debate on exactly the elements that were taken out and the ones that were added.”
But he advocated a more measured response than either DeFazio or Wu, one that follows President Barack Obama’s lead for dealing with Republican opposition.
“I think there’s great benefit to doing this as a united front,” Blumenauer said. “I’ll be happy to support the strongest position.”
Oregon’s lone Republican member of Congress, Rep. Greg Walden of Hood River, voted against the House stimulus bill. The Senate’s edits haven’t changed his mind, spokesman Andrew Whelan said.
“He’s focused on the larger point of, ‘Is this the best way to stimulate job creation?’ and he still feels it’s not,” Whelan said.
Impact on area schools
The Bend-La Pine and Redmond school districts said even the additional funding from the Senate bill would not prevent them from cutting school days.
Bend-La Pine Schools faces an estimated $3.75 million shortfall this school year, even after assuming an influx of state or federal aid, said Superintendent Ron Wilkinson.
“We build our contingency plan on the assumption that either some federal stimulus dollars or state Education Stability Fund (dollars) would be brought into play this year by the Legislature,” Wilkinson said.
The House bill, though, with its additional funding for education, would likely fill the entire school budget gap for the rest of this school year, Wilkinson said.
The House bill also includes a total of $16 billion for school modernization projects, of which the district also could see about $3 million, Wilkinson said. That money was cut from the Senate version as part of the compromise.
“If that money is available, it certainly could help — roofs, some of our sidewalk work that needs to be done around our school facilities, parking lots that need major work done,” Wilkinson said.
Redmond School District Superintendent Vickie Fleming agreed that the district probably wouldn’t get enough money to avoid shortening the school year, under the Senate version.
“There’s not enough there,” Fleming said.
But she was reluctant to project how much money Redmond schools might receive under the bills while lawmakers are still negotiating a final package.
“We like the House version better than the Senate version, and we’re just going to have to wait and see,” Fleming said.