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Clinton Pushes Education Measures on Capitol Hill

Politics: President seeks funds for new teachers and school construction. GOP leaders argue local districts should have more latitude to spend federal money.


WASHINGTON — With Republican George W. Bush touting his record on school reform, the GOP this year is laying claim to an issue Democrats have long considered their own: education.

But the battle is not confined to the presidential contest between Bush and Democrat Al Gore. In the waning days of this Congress, school funding has become a major issue that could help shape voter perceptions of which party can best manage education policy.

On Thursday, President Clinton came to Capitol Hill to headline a rally for measures to finance school construction and hire new teachers.

Even though 25 House Republicans and 204 House Democrats have endorsed the school-construction measure, GOP congressional leaders oppose it, along with Clinton's teacher-hiring initiative. The Republicans argue that, instead of designating federal money for those purposes, states and local school boards should have more leeway in how they spend the funds.

Clinton and congressional Democrats appear to relish the debate--one in which they have scored repeated victories in years past.

"We've got to get everything done we can before the Congress goes home," Clinton told cheering House and Senate Democrats. "And then what's left we need to take to the American people with clarity."

Democrats want to earmark $1.8 billion in fiscal 2001 for school districts to hire as many as 20,000 teachers. Congress previously provided money for 29,000 new teachers, responding to Clinton's initiative that set as a goal the hiring of 100,000 such instructors.

The Democrats also seek approval of $2.4 billion in tax credits over five years to help school construction, as well as earmarking $1.3 billion in funding for school repairs. The school-construction measure, by Reps. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.) and Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), is intended to help school districts raise as much as $25 billion over five years in construction bonds--including $3.1 billion in California.

House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) sought at the rally with Clinton to turn the tables on Bush, who has campaigned on a state school accountability program that he supported as Texas governor. Gephardt challenged Bush to back up his rhetoric by urging the GOP congressional leadership to act on the pending education legislation.

"We say to Gov. Bush: Let's see your so-called commitment to the nation's schools," Gephardt said.

Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said that the governor opposes Clinton's teacher-hiring initiative because he believes school districts should have greater latitude in spending federal funds.

Fleischer said that he could not address the governor's position on the school-construction measure but added that Bush supports other legislation to help schools borrow money for building.

Democrats have been anxious to stem Republican inroads on the education issue this year. They frequently taunt GOP leaders for failing to reauthorize federal elementary and secondary education programs--including important provisions to help schools in impoverished neighborhoods--for the first time in 35 years.

But the main battleground as adjournment looms is a $108.5-billion bill to fund the departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services. Republicans, for the most part, object not to the funding requests but to the policy that they say allows federal meddling in what should be local affairs.

Also Thursday, Congress gave final approval to a $131-billion package funding veterans, housing, energy and water programs as well as several other federal agencies. Clinton is expected to sign it.

And, with work unfinished on critical bills funding education, foreign aid, health and other programs, Congress postponed adjournment--previously targeted for this weekend--until at least the middle of next week by passing the fourth stopgap funding measure since fiscal 2001 began Oct. 1.

Clinton warned at the rally that he no longer would accept such "continuing resolutions."

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