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Ire from House conservatives puts education bill in jeopardy

April 23, 2015
In The News

Momentum is building for a bipartisan Senate vote to fix the much-maligned No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, but conservative opposition might derail a rival education bill in the House.

Many on the right say legislation authored by House Education Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) doesn’t go far enough in slashing the federal government’s role in K-12 education policy. And GOP leaders were forced to yank the measure from the House floor earlier this year after conservatives revolted and it got caught up in an unrelated fight over funding for the Department of Homeland Security.

If Kline’s bill collapses, it raises questions about whether Congress will be able to send legislation to President Obama’s desk and end a nagging political issue that has aggravated members on both sides of the aisle.

In an interview with The Hill on Wednesday, Kline said he’s working closely with GOP leaders on bringing up the bill and doesn’t think any changes are needed. The chairman has begun courting a handful of conservative critics: He huddled this week with Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) and has been trying to connect with Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.

“Whether we’re going to make tweaks to it or not, we’re still discussing that. It’s my preference that we not,” Kline said. “I don’t think it’s necessary because we’re picking up the votes. Whether we have them yet or not, I’m not sure. That is a whip team operation.”

But he added: “I think we’re going to get there.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and other GOP leaders have pledged the Kline bill will return, but they haven’t provided any time frame. And the legislation wasn’t mentioned in Wednesday’s House GOP caucus meeting.

Some of Kline’s conservative colleagues are doubtful the legislation can even be revived at this point.

“Most people think it’s disappeared. There’s been no talk about it coming back, other than from those who support it,” said Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.), who is opposed to the Kline bill. “That means they are trying to make it acceptable, and I don’t know if they are going to get there.”

So far, the House Freedom Caucus, the group of three-dozen conservatives led by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), hasn’t taken a formal position on the Kline bill. But another conservative, Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), told The Hill he couldn’t support the measure unless an amendment he offered with Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) comes up for a vote.

Their amendment, allowing states to opt out of federal education programs without sacrificing funding, was left on the cutting room floor when the bill first came up in February.

“Basically, there is no way you can create a program that fits Butte, Mont.; Orlando, Fla.; and inner city New York all in one program — especially in education,” said Webster, who served in the Florida Statehouse for nearly 30 years.

Obama has threatened a veto, and House Democrats are also opposed, warning that the Kline bill goes too far in restricting Washington’s role to ensure low-income, disabled and minority students receive a good education, among other concerns.

That means Kline and the GOP vote-counting team would need to pass the bill with only Republican votes. Roughly 28 GOP defections could kill the legislation, a legacy issue for Kline, who will have to relinquish his gavel next year due to terms limits.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who co-authored former President George W. Bush’s landmark education law in 2001 when he was Education Committee chairman, backs the Kline bill. The ultimate goal, Kline said, is to pass the House bill and merge it with a bipartisan Senate bill that cleared the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee last week on a lopsided 22-0 vote.

The bill received support from across the political spectrum — both conservative Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) voted for it — and it’s expected to pass the full Senate in the coming weeks. Though it might first have to navigate 2016 presidential politics: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has said he wants to tweak the bill by attaching his school-choice legislation.

If Kline’s bill can’t attract enough GOP votes in the House, Boehner could simply cut another deal with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and try to pass the Senate bill with a bipartisan vote in the House — similar to how the House recently OK’d Medicare reform legislation.

The Senate compromise bill, the product of months of talks between HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and ranking member Patty Murray (D-Wash.), is less conservative than the House bill. Under the Senate bill, students would still be tested each year in math and reading between the 3rd grade and 8th grade, as well as once in high school. But states — not the federal government — would be responsible for evaluating and dealing with poor-performing students and schools.

Alexander told The Hill his committee’s strong, bipartisan vote should encourage the lower chamber to pass their own bill and go to conference, where any differences between the competing bills can be ironed out.

“I don’t know why conservatives would want to leave in place the national school board,” said Alexander, who served as Education secretary under President George H.W. Bush. “If you leave No Child Left Behind like it is, you are leaving in place a national school board and a Common Core mandate.

“From a Republicans or conservative point of view, I would think you would want to move away from that,” he said.

But conservative sources complained that marrying the Alexander-Murray compromise with the Kline bill would put the House in a “weak negotiating position.” Adding the Walker amendment, known as A-PLUS, would improve that position, they said.

“Conservatives are understandably reluctant to jump on the chairman’s reauthorization of NCLB because it does not allow states to opt out of the federal mandates and requirements,” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action for America, which has called for more changes to the Kline bill.

“What’s more, their constituents understand the policy embedded in the bill does not align with the rhetoric of truly empowering states.”

- Updated at 5:10 p.m.