WASHINGTON — In a major breakthrough in federal budget talks, Republican and White House negotiators struck a deal Wednesday to continue President Clinton's prized education initiative to reduce class size by hiring 100,000 new teachers over the next seven years.
Under the compromise, the administration agreed to give local school districts more flexibility to use part of the $1.3-billion program for teacher training and related purposes--but not as much discretion as Republicans had sought.
Negotiators also reached agreement on spending levels for education, health and other pivotal social programs. Other differences remain, but breakthroughs on these marquee domestic issues signal that Clinton and Congress are on track to end their protracted fight over the year's federal budget.
"We're very close to a deal," said Assistant Senate Majority Leader Don Nickles (R-Okla.). "The differences are minuscule."
Procedural snags and other eleventh-hour obstacles dashed hopes that a final budget accord could be passed before next week. But negotiators mounted a big push for compromise on the handful of remaining issues in hopes of bringing the final budget before the House for a vote as early as Friday. (Congress will not meet today, in commemoration of Veterans Day.)
Republican leaders in the House took the risk of riling their rank and file by ordering them to return to Capitol Hill after Veterans Day for the possible budget vote. Lawmakers with long distances to travel, such as members of the California delegation, were infuriated by a schedule that could make them cut short visits to their districts for the holiday.
But in explaining the decision, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) said: "There is that magic moment [in every year's budget battle] where everyone says we can agree. That moment is at hand, and we don't want to deny our members the opportunity to seize that moment."
A vote in the Senate is not possible until next Wednesday because Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) gave the Senate an extended break for Veterans Day.
Approval of the sweeping budget deal would clear the way for Republicans to adjourn this session of Congress for the rest of the year. In recent weeks, Clinton and his Democratic allies have seemed in no big hurry to wrap up and go home, which strengthened their hand at the bargaining table.
On Wednesday, the major breakthrough came when key negotiators struck the deal on teacher hiring, an issue that both sides previously had treated as nonnegotiable. The budget negotiators Wednesday agreed to provide $1.3 billion for the class-size program--almost all of the $1.4 billion Clinton wanted.
The money would fund the second year of Clinton's teacher-hiring program, the centerpiece of his education agenda.
Separately, House Education Committee Chairman William F. Goodling (R-Pa.) and top White House aides struck a compromise on the policy governing the program. Clinton has insisted on assurances that the money go toward hiring teachers; Republicans have argued that school districts should be able to use the money for other purposes if they do not need more teachers or if they cannot find qualified ones.
The agreement would keep the program focused on teachers but would allow schools to spend 25% of their money on teacher training or teacher testing--up from 15%. It also would require schools to hire only certified teachers with the money, bowing to Goodling's demand for more guarantees that teacher quality not be compromised in the stampede to hire more people. Additionally, certain rural schools and schools with large numbers of uncertified teachers would be allowed to use all their money for teacher training.
Another aspect of the accord calls for permanently ending Goals 2000--a Clinton-backed education reform program that has drawn heavy GOP criticism--when its authorization runs out next year.
Sources familiar with the deal said it was an "agreement in principle" that would be subject to review by both sides after details are drafted.
Another breakthrough came on overall funding for the departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services. Negotiators wrapped up work on the bill--which includes the teacher-hiring program--when Republicans agreed to provide $1.45 billion of the $2.3 billion in additional money Clinton had requested for the agencies.
Those developments should clear the way for negotiators to settle the handful of other issues hanging in the balance, such as anti-abortion restrictions that have tied up proposals to pay back United Nations dues and a proposal, opposed by environmentalists, that would allow coal companies to dump waste from mountaintop strip mines into streams.