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Pell Grant Increase Preserved in Stimulus

After weeks of contentious debate, House and Senate negotiators Wednesday announced an agreement on a $789 billion economic stimulus package that, sources say, should include a sizable increase for the Pell Grant program.

While details still were being finalized at press time, the agreement was expected to provide K-12 and higher education with at least $80 billion — the amount contained in a Senate-passed stimulus bill earlier this week. The House of Representatives had sought a larger piece of the pie for education, and there were signs that negotiators still were working to go beyond the Senate number by adding funds for school facilities.

“Like any negotiation, this process involved give and take,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who, with other lawmakers, praised the agreement even as many details remained unclear. In the end, however, the package will create jobs and help individuals improve their skills. “We need to invest in America’s future,” he said.

Student groups said the critical victory occurred Tuesday when a handful of moderate Republicans agreed to keep a Pell Grant increase in the Senate version of the stimulus.

Up until that point, there was talk that moderate Republicans and Democrats might seek removal of that funding, said Rich Williams, higher education associate at U.S. PIRG, a public interest research organization.

“The major victory was keeping Pell in the Senate package,” Williams told Diverse. The Senate approved an additional $13.9 billion for Pell to address a program shortfall and raise the maximum grant by up to $400 by 2010.

The House-passed bill proposed a $500 increase. “We would prefer $500 to $400,” said Angela Peoples, legislative director for the United States Student Association.

Still, while higher education leaders were awaiting the bill’s final numbers, both advocates said the Pell increase was expected to survive in some form given its priority in both chambers. “It was so hard fought. Some increase will be there,” Peoples added.

A third source, an education lobbyist who requested not to be identified because of the close negotiations, also said Pell was set for at least a moderate increase, with a possibility of reaching the higher House number. “I certainly haven’t heard anything negative” on Pell, the lobbyist said.

But moderate Republicans did win several concessions. At $789 billion, the total package is less than the cost of either the House- or Senate-passed bills. While taking heat from members of their own party, the GOP senators — Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Penn.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine — said they were successful in winning some spending controls.

Of the $789 billion, Collins said, “It is a fiscally responsible number.”

Unknown is the fate of the House’s plan to spend $6 billion on higher education modernization. The Senate had rejected that idea earlier in the week. Senators also had turned down a House plan to spend $14 billion for K-12 construction.

Negotiators were trying to bridge the gaps by providing at least $6 billion for education “modernization,” a congressional aide said. Some lawmakers said modernization — or repair and improvement projects — would generate jobs more quickly than new construction projects, which may take some time to prepare.

The education lobbyist also said that the final number for modernization could go as high as $9 billion, with $6 billion for K-12 and $3 billion for higher education.

In addition, the final package includes new funding for pipeline programs such as Head Start, Title I and special education, the lobbyist said. In some cases, “little bits were shaved off” earlier proposals to meet last-minute fiscal targets.

About 35 percent of the final package is tax relief, and approximately $150 billion is slated for infrastructure, including roads, bridges and dams, senators said at an afternoon Capitol Hill news conference.

Specter, one of the renegade GOP lawmakers supporting the package, said it contains more spending than he’d like. But he noted that the current crisis requires compromise and attempts at consensus. “We face a catastrophe,” he said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she is seeking a House vote Thursday or Friday. A Senate vote would follow, though no timetable has been set. President Barack Obama has said he wants the bill signed into law by Presidents’ Day , which is Monday.

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