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Bleak Omens for Obama's Ed Agenda on the Hill

Congressional Quarterly reported yesterday that House Democratic leaders will accept the Senate's plan to pass a stripped-down supplemental spending bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and seek another way to funnel $10 billion in edu-aid to the states. Before turning the page on the Obey-Obama defense supplemental imbroglio, however, a postmortem is in order--especially given some worrisome portents for the administration's school reform agenda.

Last week, POLITICO's David Rogers examined just how D.C. Democrats got so far off the rails in the push for the teacher jobs bill. In a story tellingly headlined "The Dems' Education Debacle," Rogers explained how a seemingly painless chance to pour money into state and district coffers became "a lesson in how dysfunctional this White House and Congress can be on domestic policy." Indeed, Rogers quoted Representative Obey, chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, asserting that a White House veto threat (in response to a proposed $500 million cut to Race to the Top) actually helped Dems pass the bill in the House.

I wrote a little while back about how the House bill was largely a matter of pique, but this just gets uglier and uglier. It's also full of bad omens for the administration's efforts on school reform, NCLB reauthorization, RTT, and i3--whatever happens in November. Looks like the administration is hurting for friends and that its reform agenda could be whipsawed by fiscal pressures, Congressional frustration, and disgruntled liberals.

Rogers depicts a "destructive divide between job-hungry lawmakers and a White House anxious to burnish its business credentials at the expense of teacher unions." He reports a meeting (which was news to me) in which Obama personally appealed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the run-up to the July Fourth recess, asking her "to intercede and protect education reform funds from being cut to pay for the teachers' jobs." She blew him off, resulting in the Obama veto threat.

The surprising result? According to Rogers, increased unity among House Dems, all but 15 of whom joined "in a shot across the bow of the president." In fact, Obey told Rogers, "I think their veto threat helped us pass the amendment." Obey explained, "There are so many members of our caucus who think that this administration is willing to use members of Congress as cannon fodder. I think they were looking for a chance to send a message to the administration."

And all of this was ultimately pretty pointless because, as I've noted before, the bill is unlikely to go anywhere in the Senate. Asked what the next step would be, Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Daniel Inouye said, "I wish I knew; I really mean that."

Obey says he understands the import that Obama and Duncan attach to RTT--but he also argues that he has sacrificed hundreds of millions he sought for broadband access, and he thinks Dems have to sacrifice pet reforms if that's what it takes to deliver new dollars.

Even Capitol Hill's Democratic education kingpin, House Education and Labor Committee Chair George Miller, is now taking shots at the administration. "There's no strategy there," Miller said. Obama and Duncan are trying to find a way to ladle out more bucks while also negotiating public concerns about soaring deficits and using a prickly relationship with the teacher unions as evidence of the president's reform bona fides. It's no big surprise that many Hill Dems reportedly regard the administration's resulting maneuvers as too cute by half.

It's a real shame when pandering doesn't pay off. When you're trying to give away billions in money you don't have to buy support and all you get is grief, it may be time to revisit that ol' drawing board.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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