Outlook: Long-Debated Education Bill on Path to Conference

This week’s main event is the expected Senate passage of a No Child Left Behind rewrite.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 11: U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) speaks to members of the media at the Capitol October 11, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. On the 11th day of a U.S. Government shutdown, President Barack Obama spoke with Speaker Boehner on the phone and they agreed that they should keep talking.
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
July 12, 2015, 4 p.m.

Don’t look now, but the Senate is actually having a constructive debate on a contentious issue.

In an environment that has been tense and marked by bullying on everything from defense spending to trade policy to the fate of the Export-Import Bank, the Senate’s debate over a carefully negotiated bipartisan education bill has gone remarkably smoothly. The chamber has held dozens of votes on amendments, some of which were controversial and voted down, and accepted dozens more without conflict. Everyone seems to be breathing a sigh of relief.

The Senate is expected to finish its work on the education bill this week, marking a major milestone for educators and advocates who have been looking for a rewrite of No Child Left Behind for eight years. The House passed its more-conservative version of the legislation last week, with an eye toward a conference committee with the Senate. Democrats oppose the House version, but they also know that it can’t move any further to the right in conference if President Obama is expected to sign it.

But before they get there, the Senate needs to finish its own bill. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander is having the time of his life as the Republican manager of the floor debate. This is exactly what he has been waiting to do for four years since he stepped down as the No. 3 Senate Republican to focus on hard-core legislating.

“So far, so good, but something will happen,” Alexander cautiously said last week about the relatively friendly floor debate. “We’ve considered a lot of amendments. We’ve got dozens more that Senator Patty Murray and I have agreed to,” referring to the Democratic floor manager and cosponsor of the bill.

The big amendments on tap deal with discrimination, school vouchers, early education, how federal money is distributed to states, and how schools account for student achievement. Some of them, like the vouchers amendment, would incur Democrats’ opposition if they passed. Others, like accountability, would draw Republican opposition. But those amendments probably won’t pass. Alexander and Murray have coordinated the amendment process such that the deal-breaker proposals can get votes but won’t upset the balance of the bill heading into a conference committee.

The House, meanwhile, has several noncontroversial bills on tap while GOP leaders figure out what to do about a standoff over the uses of the Confederate flag that has stalled the Interior Department spending bill and, for now, has also put off consideration of the financial services and general government appropriations measure. Later in the week they will vote on a bill sponsored by all California Republicans to alter water-preservation rules under the Endangered Species Act to get more water to drought-suffering farms and towns.

ENERGY

As California continues to clean up from the May oil spill that polluted beaches near Santa Barbara, a House Energy and Commerce panel will put a spotlight on the regulatory agency in charge of pipeline safety. On Tuesday, the Energy and Power Subcommittee will hear from Stacy Cummings, the interim director of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, over PHMSA’s implementation of a 2011 pipeline safety law, which critics have said has been too lax.

On Wednesday, House Republicans will take aim at the Obama administration’s management of fracking on public lands during an oversight hearing convened by the Natural Resources Committee’s Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing Wednesday on the nomination of Kristen Kulinowski to join the Chemical Safety Board, an agency that recently saw the dismissal of its chairman and has been left with just two active members on its five-person board.

FINANCE

It will be a full week for the financial services committees ahead of the fifth anniversary of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen will testify before the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday. On Thursday, Yellen will testify before the Senate Banking Committee.

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Chairman Richard Cordray will testify before the Banking Committee for the agency’s semiannual report to Congress. Shelby has previously spoken about putting the CFPB under Congressional appropriations instead of having it receive money from the Federal Reserve, which is how it receives funding.

HEALTH

On Monday, the White House will host its 2015 Conference on Aging. Some topics include financial security, healthy aging, and technology. On Wednesday, the Senate Special Committee on Aging will hold a hearing on diabetes research.

The Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a subcommittee hearing on Tuesday to discuss ways to strengthen Medicare and to make sure the Medicare prescription drug program operates effectively. The Senate Finance Committee will hold a hearing on Thursday to review HealthCare.gov controls.

And on Tuesday, the National Health Council will release a state-by-state comparison of changes that have been made to improve exchanges and what still needs to be done.

WHITE HOUSE

President Obama will start his week by delivering remarks at the White House Conference on Aging, a conference held each decade since the 1960s to help improve the quality of life for the elderly.

On Tuesday, he’ll kick off a focus on criminal-justice reform, speaking at the NAACP’s 106th national convention in Philadelphia. In the speech, he will “outline the unfairness in much of our criminal-justice system, highlight bipartisan ideas for reform, and lay out his own ideas to make our justice system fairer, smarter, and more cost-effective while keeping the American people safe and secure,” press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Friday.

Obama will begin a two-day swing through Oklahoma on Wednesday, visiting the Choctaw Nation in Durant to speak about expanding economic opportunity. On Thursday, he is set to become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison: the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, just outside Oklahoma City. There, he’ll meet with law-enforcement officials and prisoners, as well as film an interview for a Vice documentary on the criminal-justice system.

Jason Plautz, Rebecca Nelson, Caitlin Owens and Eric Garcia contributed to this article.
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