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New Congress Expected to Give Education Higher Profile

New Congress Expected to Give Education Higher Profile
Initiatives plan to improve college access and affordability.
By Charles Dervarics

With a major shakeup looming on Capitol Hill, education advocates are preparing for a new environment in which Democrats will seek more financial aid assistance and give higher education more visibility in Congress.

Democrats on the 2006 midterm campaign trail promised to cut student loan interest rates in half, create new education tax breaks and expand Pell Grant funding. By winning a majority in the House of Representatives and gaining control of the Senate, the party is raising expectations for quick action on several fronts in early 2007.

“Democrats will be under pressure to deliver on access and affordability,” says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

As outlined by U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the likely new Speaker of the House, the Democrat’s education agenda includes three major higher education components:

-Student loans: Cut interest rates in half for student and parent loans, to 3.4 percent and 4.3 percent, respectively.

-Tax credits: Simplify existing education tax breaks and grant a $3,000 credit, or enough to cover 55 percent of the average tuition and fees at a public four-year college.

Pell Grants: Increase the maximum grant for needy students by 25 percent, to $5,100.

Democrats may seek some of these changes within days of taking control of Congress in January. Within the first 100 hours, Pelosi plans to seek action on a number of issues, including a minimum wage increase. Lower interest rates may become part of that package as well, says Nassirian.

Financial institutions, however, are likely to oppose interest rate cuts, he adds, and the banking industry has allies in both parties.Should House Democrats move quickly on these issues, action in the more deliberative Senate may take more time. Democrats will hold only a razor-thin advantage in a chamber known for seeking consensus on many issues.

“It’s going to be tough to go into [the Senate] with anything resembling a mandate,” Nassirian says. However, he adds that the small increase in Pell Grants recommended by House Republicans “would be one of the least controversial changes.”

U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., is poised to take over the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. U.S. Rep George Miller, D-Calif., is in line to run the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. If he declines the position, U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., likely would become education chairman. U.S. Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., who Nassirian calls “a longtime supporter of higher education,” will likely lead the House Committee on Appropriations, which controls the purse strings for thousands of federal programs, including those in education.

More education funding also is a priority for the Congressional Black Caucus, all of whom are Democrats. Overwhelming support from Black voters helped carry Democrats to victory in the midterm elections, says Dr. Ron Walters, a political scientist and director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland.

“Some priorities of the CBC really should get a hearing in the House and in the Senate,” Walters says. Exit polls showed that 51 percent of Whites voted Republican, while 86 percent of Blacks voted for Democrats.

“The American people have spoken and African-Americans, in particular, have overwhelmingly voted for new leadership in Congress and around the country,” says U.S. Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., chair of the CBC. “We will now have a Congress that works for all Americans.”

Another major concern of the CBC is whether senior Black lawmakers will be able to claim leadership roles in the new Democrat-controlled House. Senior CBC member, U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., is a candidate for House Majority Whip, the third-ranking job in the House. A graduate of historically Black South Carolina State University, Clyburn has worked actively to provide funding for historic preservation
at HBCUs.

Five African-Americans are potentially in line to lead committees, including U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D- N.Y., who is in line to run the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax policy. Conservative Democrats believe some of these Black lawmakers are too liberal, Walters says. U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., already has had to fend off criticism that he would move immediately to impeach President Bush if he became chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

However, denying them leadership posts would cause a serious rift in the party, Walters maintains.

According to Walters, both lawmakers have assured Pelosi that they will exhibit some restraint. “They have committed to her that they won’t develop a wildly liberal agenda,” Walters says.

Walters also says Democrats will use the next two years to push policies — such as increased education funding — with an eye toward the next presidential election. “The Democrats,” Walters says, “really want to use the next two years to tee up issues they consider important for 2008.”

Expected Leaders of a Democrat-controlled House:

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Speaker of the House

Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., a candidate for House Majority Whip, the third-ranking job in the House

Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., Ways and Means Committee

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the Judiciary Committee

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the Committee on Homeland Security

Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., is in line to run the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence if Rep. Jane Harman doesn’t take the helm.

Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, D-Calif., Committee  on House Administration

Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., The House Small Business Committee

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