GOP Senators Urged To Drop Voucher Plan

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 27, 2003

A Senate Democratic leader yesterday called on Republicans to withdraw a proposal for federal school vouchers in the District, saying that GOP leaders do not have enough support to pass the plan and are risking a delay in more pressing Senate business.

"We'll have a lot of trouble completing the D.C. bill Monday, or any time in the future," Assistant Minority Leader Harry M. Reid Nev.) said during the Senate's third day of intermittent debate on the proposal.

Reid said in an interview that if Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) does not pull the measure, Republicans will have to show that they can muster 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to cut off debate and force the voucher proposal to a vote, the time-consuming process known as cloture.

"I think he should drop the D.C. bill, go to another bill, and if he still has time left at the end of the year and wants to go through the cloture process, if in fact he feels we should do that, okay. But it's too late to do that now," Reid said.

The voucher proposal is attached to the District's 2004 budget. Frist said he still wants to finish the bill early next week, and he blamed Democrats for stalling.

"I'm not sure why, when time is made available . . . there is refusal [by Democrats] to bring up amendments" for a vote, Frist said. "I hope it's not national politics."

Reid's implicit threat of a filibuster comes as the Senate faces a crush of year-end business. Senate leaders are planning to bring up the president's $87 billion aid request for Iraq and Afghanistan next week, before they leave Friday for a nine-day break, and they also face pressure to finish work on six federal spending bills for the fiscal year that starts Wednesday.

Given that time crunch and the prospect of a Democratic filibuster on vouchers, GOP Senate leaders may decide to combine the District budget bill with several other measures into an omnibus spending bill that would be harder for Democrats to tie up.

The Senate measure would provide vouchers up to $7,500 to at least 1,700 low-income District children to attend private schools, and it includes another $26 million for District charter and regular public schools. The House has passed a $10 million vouchers-only program for at least 1,300 children.

On the floor yesterday, senators wrangled over whether the bill would help poor students who are now trapped in failing schools or divert taxpayer dollars to subsidize an unproven project of conservative interest groups.

"Every day, parents of District children get up knowing they are not safe, they will not learn and it is not going to change," said Sen. James M. Talent (R-Mo.), speaking for the measure.

Democrats said there has been no guarantee from the White House that the $26 million for public schools in the Senate bill would survive final talks with the House. "It's foolish. We should be directing resources toward failing [public] schools," said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). "This proposal is not directed at failing schools."

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