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Timeline Trouble Ahead for Senate NCLB Overhaul?

Five days have passed since the chairman and ranking member on the Senate education committee announced that they would begin negotiating on a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind law in an attempt to produce a bipartisan bill.

The move was a big deal because it signaled a dramatic departure from the path Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., had been taking with his discussion draft.

So where do we stand nearly a week later? Well, there's not much being made public at the moment. But one thing stood out Tuesday afternoon after interviews with both Alexander and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the committee: They aren't on the same page when it comes to a timeline.

Alexander said Tuesday that he would like to get negotiations wrapped up "as soon as possible."

"The advantage of doing it sooner rather than later is that we have a better chance of getting it to the floor," continued Alexander, who explained that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., plans to commit two to three months of floor time for appropriations bills and the budget.

"If we wait too long, why, we'll get behind the appropriations bills, we'll get behind the budget, and it will be the fall," Alexander said. "So, we'll see. I would like to have the bill ready in March."

Murray, meanwhile, said the two have plenty of time to hammer out a deal.

"I think we have a lot of time to discuss within our parameters what we're going to do," Murray said.

When asked whether her characterization of having "a lot of time" is true given Alexander's preferred timeline, Murray said that she hadn't talked to McConnell about his plans for the floor.

"What I do know is that it's important to get this work done right and I really appreciate Sen. Alexander sitting down and trying to work with us to get it right," Murray said. "At the end of the day we need to make sure we have a federal education system that makes sure we do what we've always said we'd do in this country, and that's make sure that every child has access to quality education."

While a disagreement on timeline might not seem like a big deal to the average bear, it is when it comes down to pushing legislation over the finish line. And here's why:

Major pieces of legislation fall victim to the congressional timeline all the time, especially when there is disagreement at the outset on a way forward. For example, it took lawmakers more than a dozen years to overhaul the federal workforce training law.

And even measures that have overwhelming bipartisan support, like the education research bill, still sometimes succumb to a broader agenda that doesn't have time to waste on smaller potatoes.

The overhaul of the No Child Left Behind law, of course, is no small potatoes. But Alexander and Murray have some pretty big policy differences to resolve (testing, accountability, Title I portability, etc.), and it stands to be seen whether they can actually overcome them before the opportunity for floor time evaporates.

Alexander is correct in pointing out that, since Republicans have vowed to fund the government through the regular appropriations process, there are only so many days on the calendar before lawmakers begin debating and trying to clear the dozen spending bills that will begin hitting the floor in May.

And remember, Congress breaks for summer recess at the end of June and doesn't return until mid-September—at which point, GASP!, much of Washington will be focused on the presidential campaign of 2016.

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