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Senate OKs America COMPETES Bill as Session Nears End

With the 111th Congress rapidly coming to a close, the Senate on Friday approved legislation that seeks in part to improve education in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The action was something of a surprise, as some analysts had feared the Senate might not pass the measure this year.

The bill to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act now goes back to the House, which had approved its own version last spring. The Senate approved the bill by unanimous consent.

At this point, I'm still gathering details on the plan, but James Brown, the co-chair of the STEM Education Coalition and an assistant director at the American Chemical Society, clued me into some key provisions. For one, he said the Senate bill contains a new measure, also in the House bill, designed to ensure better coordination of STEM education activities across federal agencies. The Senate bill also reauthorizes a variety of STEM education programs, including the the $55 million Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, which encourages talented STEM majors and professionals to become K-12 math and science teachers.

In addition, Brown said the Senate bill contains a significant change to the Noyce program, essentially lowering the match required by participating universities from 50 percent to 30 percent, which could help entice more higher education institutions to get involved.

"That's real change," Brown says. "It's a very popular program."

Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, touted the legislation in a statement on Friday.

"This is an investment in America's future and our long-term competitiveness in the global marketplace," he said. "This bill invests in R&D and in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education—drivers of our economy and keys to our economic success. The investments we make now in science, technology, research and STEM education will pay incredible dividends down the road."

Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., the retiring chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, issued a statement Friday praising the Senate's action.

"While there have been concessions made, the Senate's amendments preserve the intent of the Rising Above the Gathering Storm report and the original COMPETES," he said. "It keeps our basic research agencies on a [path to] doubling [their budgets], it continues to invest in high-risk, high-reward energy technology development, it will help improve STEM education, and it will help unleash American innovation.

He added: "I am hopeful that this will come up before the House next week. I urge my House colleagues to stand with the business community, the academic community, the scientific community, and the Senate to send a strong message that the U.S. must maintain its scientific and economic leadership."

It's worth noting that the House will be in a very different position come January if the legislation doesn't pass the House again, given that Republicans will hold a majority. Also, Rep. Gordon, a key champion of the legislation, is retiring at the end of this session.

For background, here's my post about the House passage in May. The final vote in that chamber was 262 to 150, with 17 Republicans joining most, but not all, Democrats in favor. Some Republicans complained that the price tag for the legislation—all told, some $86 billion over five years—was too high.

The Senate bill, however, provides a three-year reauthorization, rather than five.

Brown said he believes the prospects are good for the House to embrace the Senate bill. Because of time constraints, the House essentially has no choice but to approve the Senate version if it wants to get a bill to President Obama before the 111th Congress formally closes on Jan. 3.

"I think the House is going to pass this," Brown said. "I don't know what the vote is going to look like."

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