Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell felt like a punching bag this time last year. "It was tough, really tough," he recalled the other day. "Even the conservative congressmen and senators were beating up on me for what we proposed to do."

But Bell is breathing easier now. The administration's education budget was not greeted with hosannas, but the criticism was less shrill than in the past. "For the first time in a long time this place doesn't feel like it's under siege," said one high official.

One reason: the budget for education was bigger than many had expected, calling for $13.2 billion in authority, instead of $9 billion as the president's Office of Management and Budget originally proposed.

"The education community was geared up for a fight, a big one," Bell said. "But they haven't had the reason to start one."

Bell, however, expects nasty skirmishes over the coming months, mostly over policy instead of funding.

The first battle has started over an administration proposal to spend $75 million to correct an acute shortage of science teachers. It has caught Bell in a crossfire between liberals and conservatives.

Conservatives are incensed that the administration would propose yet another educational aid program. Liberals think $75 million is not enough, and last week the House Education and Labor Committee began marking up a $300 million science and math teacher bill of its own.