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Congress Reconvenes with Lots at Stake for Education

Clock and American currency. Time is money conceptThis blog post is written by AACTE consultant Jane West and is intended to provide updated information. The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of AACTE.

Members of Congress are in a Race Against the Clock with Critical Deadlines Looming this Fall 

Members of Congress are in a race against the clock to get four major pieces of legislation passed and ultimately to keep the government running. The big four are the bi-partisan infrastructure bill, the reconciliation bill, a continuing resolution to avoid a government shutdown, and legislation to raise the debt ceiling to avoid the government from heading into default on its obligations.

The first bill, the bi-partisan infrastructure bill, passed the Senate before the August recess. It is now up to the House to act. However, the bill’s progress is tied to the fate of the second bill—reconciliation (which is a Democrat only initiative)—which is described further below. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) promised Democrats that she will hold a vote on the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill by September 27. She also pledged to approve the partisan reconciliation bill—a $3.5 trillion plan for social programs (including education)—in conjunction with the bi-partisan infrastructure bill. By tying those two bills together she is hoping to keep her caucus on the same page, with both moderates and liberals supporting them both.

However, that ambitious goal and politically fraught challenge is running up against complex negotiations on the reconciliation package that are underway between the House, the Senate and the White House. There is a strong desire to “pre-conference the massive bill” before either the House or the Senate pass it.  This “pre-conferencing” would mean that both chambers would agree on the contents of the bill in advance, and thus avoid drawn-out fights on amendments in one chamber, which may go on to fail in another chamber. There is little wiggle room in this endeavor, as in order to pass the bill it must win the support of nearly every Democrat in Congress. The House can afford to lose only three Democrats and the Senate must corral every one of its 50 Democrats. Disagreement over the overall cost of the bill has become significant, as the House and the White House are pursing $3.5 trillion and moderate Senate Democrats (notably Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Krysten Sinema (D-AZ)) are holding out for less—perhaps $1.5 trillion.

The third bill—a Continuing Resolution—must be passed by both chambers before September 30, when all current government funding runs out. Congress has virtually given up on trying to pass the FY 22 funding bill in time, as the Senate has not yet begun to mark up its bills at the Committee level. In order to avoid a government shutdown Congress needs to pass this temporary extension of funding, which will likely hold things together for a few months while work on the FY 22 funding bills continues. The passage of these short-term continuing resolutions has become more the rule than the exception in recent years.

Finally, Congress needs to raise the debt ceiling. The United States is expected to reach its limit in the coming weeks and without an increase in the debt ceiling, the government could default on its financial obligations. This too is politically challenging, as Republicans have said they will not support an effort to increase the debt ceiling unless spending cuts are on the table.  Democrats are deciding how to proceed in order to avoid a calamity on their watch. 

Education advocates are keeping a close eye on all four of these trains moving down the tracks hoping they will all reach the station on time, and without a collision.

Another Biden-Harris Appointees Moves Forward in the Department of Education

On Tuesday, the Senate voted 58-37 to confirm James Kvaal as the next Under Secretary of Education, making him the third highest ranking official in the Department. Nine Republicans joined with Democrats to confirm Kvaal: Sens. Roy Blunt (R-MO); Richard Burr (R-NC); Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV); Bill Cassidy (R-LA); Susan Collins (R-ME); Lindsey Graham (R-SC); Roger Marshall (R-KS); Mitt Romney (R-UT); and Tim Scott (R-SC).  Kvaal will be responsible for executing the Biden Administration’s higher education and student aid agenda.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) held up Kvaal’s nomination for months as she negotiated with the Biden Administration over changes she said she wants to see for how the department manages its student loan portfolio. Warren lifted her hold on the nomination just before the August recess, citing “substantial reforms” to the federal student loan program that she said the Administration had vowed to make.

In a statement, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona praised the confirmation of Kvaal, highlighting the critical importance of the role of the Under Secretary. Kvaal previously was a top education adviser in the Obama White House and more recently led The Institute for College Access and Success.

Read the full Washington Update on my website for more information, and stay tuned for more information and opportunities to advocate for this historic investment in the educator workforce. Follow us on Twitter @janewestdc and @brennan_kait.

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Jane E. West

AACTE Education Policy Consultant