The Imperiled Presidency A Textbook Struggle

An Unlikely Partnership Left Behind

The bipartisanship President Bush built with Sen. Edward Kennedy, left, promoting education policy has become strained.
The bipartisanship President Bush built with Sen. Edward Kennedy, left, promoting education policy has become strained. (By Al Behrman -- Associated Press)
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 5, 2007

It felt familiar, as if the past five years had not happened -- the Republican president and the Democratic senator together again, plotting ways to reshape the nation's education system. As they sat in the Oval Office that day back in January, President Bush and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy put their schism over the war behind them and focused on the agenda at hand.

"We're going to get moving on this, right Ted?" Bush asked.

Yes, Mr. President, Kennedy said. He could pass it by March.

Ten months later, the optimism has vanished and the campaign to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind education law has bogged down. Not only has it not passed, but no formal legislation has even been introduced. In an interview last week, Kennedy said it will not happen this year after all. "It's going to tip over to next year," he said -- right into the teeth of a presidential campaign with candidates on both sides denouncing the program.

This was supposed to be the one area where the embattled White House and the assertive new Democratic Congress would find common ground, thanks to the unlikely partnership between a Texas conservative and a Massachusetts liberal. But like the rest of Bush's legislative agenda, No Child Left Behind has fallen victim to political deadlock, leaving a weakened president struggling to salvage perhaps his most important domestic achievement with the help of one of his toughest critics.

The politics of No Child Left Behind have always been difficult to navigate. In the strange-bedfellows world of education reform, Bush finds himself fending off foes from the left and right. Teachers' unions stand alongside hard-line conservatives against the program, while civil rights groups team up with business organizations in support of it.

The threat to the education accountability program comes as test scores hint at progress, with the gap between white children and minorities narrowing. "There's no reason to turn back the clock," Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said in an interview. "We're on the move. This is working."

If it is not reauthorized, the law will remain on the books unchanged, although even supporters, including Bush, think it needs to be updated to fix problems and establish "deeper roots," as Spellings put it. Moreover, inaction would represent another punishing defeat for Bush after the death of his plans to overhaul Social Security, immigration law and the tax code. "It matters a lot to him," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who talked about it with Bush aboard Air Force One last week.

Boehner and other original authors of the law have grown pessimistic about their chances. "It's slim to none that it gets reauthorized for a variety of reasons," Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said. "You have the hard left and the hard right against it. You're running into a presidential election when the Democrats certainly don't want to highlight one of the biggest domestic accomplishments of the president. And clearly the calendar works against it."

Kennedy is not ready to give in. But thinking back on seven years of partnership with Bush on the issue, he grows glum. "It seemed to me the president had a golden opportunity to reform education," he said, "and it's in very, very great danger of being missed."

Goodwill Gestures

Bush made education reform a cornerstone of his Texas governorship and vowed to do the same in the White House. But he made a rookie mistake out of the gate. Convening an education summit in Austin a week after Al Gore conceded in December 2000, Bush neglected to invite Kennedy, a master of the legislative process who had put his mark on nearly every education law in modern times.

The Bush team moved to rectify the oversight. Andrew H. Card Jr., the new chief of staff, called Kennedy on vacation in the Caribbean to smooth things over. And at a luncheon after the January 2001 inauguration, former senator Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) brought Bush over to Kennedy. "He is an ornery SOB," Simpson told Bush, "but you can do business with him."

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