Clinton, Republicans seek breakthrough on stalled education spending
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Clinton urged Congress to move on a major school construction bill Tuesday, one of several government spending bills mired in Congress two weeks before a pivotal Election Day.
Democrats and Republicans pressed their dueling agendas on education spending in separate rallies at the White House and Capitol Hill on Tuesday. Education has long been a battleground issue between Republicans and Democrats, and this budget year is no exception.
"There can be nothing more important than actually acting like we say we believe that our kids are the most important thing in the world to us," Clinton told supporters gathered on the South Lawn.
Congress and the White House are wrangling over a roughly $350 billion appropriations bill -- which includes funding for health and labor programs -- now pending. Eager to secure his legacy as an education president, Clinton insisted that the GOP-led Congress target funds toward his agenda to reduce classroom sizes by hiring 50,000 additional teachers and building and modernizing public schools.
With a model red schoolhouse and a group of elementary school students standing behind him as a backdrop, Clinton vowed not to sign any more "tardy slips" giving Congress more time to reach agreement on education spending.
"Nearly two months into the new school year, the majority leadership still hasn't given a single dime for school construction and modernization, not even enough to build a one-room schoolhouse," he said.
Clinton has signed four continuing resolutions to keep the government funded as negotiations continued well past Oct. 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year. Republicans and Democrats must also must make headway on a roughly $37 billion bill to fund the Commerce, Justice and State Departments and a $15 billion international aid measure before Congress adjourns.
President Clinton hangs a sign on a model schoolhouse after urging Congress to move on a major school construction bill.
In particular, Clinton renewed his call for $25 billion in new school construction bonds designed to build and modernize public schools over the next 15 years. Under the plan, bond owners would receive federal tax credits rather the interest payments from the school districts, allowing those districts to borrow interest-free.
"I don't think it's too much to ask the federal government, at a time of record surpluses, to provide $25 billion in school construction and modernization bonds," Clinton said.
Clinton also pushed for a five-year, $1.3 billion initiative designed to help meet public schools' most urgent repair needs, such as roofing and heating and cooling systems. The assistance would be targeted to high-need districts.
The president also called for an additional $1.75 billion to help hire 50,000 elementary school teachers as well as more dollars to fund after-school and summer-school programs designed to help at-risk students boost test scores and stay out of trouble.
"If you think about how overcrowded these schools are, it is more important than ever that we allow them to stay open in the afternoon and to provide summer programs," Clinton said.
Republicans agree to some additional spending
Republicans have remained steadfast in their demand that local school districts control the money. However, they're also eager to head home to defend their narrow six-seat majority in the House of Representatives.
With high school students serving as his own backdrop, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, and other GOP lawmakers gathered outside the Capitol to press their case for more local control.
"Republicans believe that the federal government plays a limited but very important federal role in education. We simply want to help schools get the money that they need to improve education without so many Washington strings attached," Hastert said.
Hastert added that the Republicans have agreed in principle to the dollar amounts Clinton laid out in his proposals for school bonds and repair needs, but insisted that the measures include flexibility provisions for local school districts.
"Mr. President, we will make your spending request for school construction, we will increase funding for school construction $1.3 billion ... but we want that money to go directly to the school districts that will use it," Hastert said.
"Give parents and school superintendents and school boards the power to decide if they need that money for school construction or if they need it for teacher training or if they need it for new computers."
Hastert also expressed a willingness to meet the president's spending request on public school bonds, but again with the caveat that Washington mandates be kept to a minimum. "This means more money will go to schools and less money to waste," he said.
But the GOP disposition toward Clinton's larger spending request has warmed in recent days, reflecting the party's eagerness to avoid a protracted budget battle and head home to campaign.
On Monday, the GOP Senate leadership took away negotiating responsibility from Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, who chairs a subcommittee that wrote the labor-education bill, because of his refusals to go along with additional spending.
"I'm not going to be a party to spending more than the president asked for," Specter said, complaining that Democrats were now demanding $5 billion more in the bill after Republicans agreed to meet Clinton's original demand.
With Specter out of the talks, Republicans floated an offer for an additional $3.5 billion to cover Clinton's priorities, as well as some of their own. Hastert has embraced the move.
"For the last two years, education has been one of the top priorities of this Congress, it has been one of my priorities as Speaker of the House. Over the last four years we've increased education funding by 50 percent and we've cleared the way of red tape to make funding more effective."
Reuters contributed to this report.