Sen. Rand Paul put a quick end to Wednesday morning's Senate markup of a long-awaited education reform bill to overhaul the 10-year-old No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law.
The Kentucky Republican objected under the Senate's "two-hour" rule, which requires unanimous consent for a committee to meet for longer than two hours once the full body is in session. The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is expected to resume the session at 8 a.m. Thursday.
Mr. Paul said he and other senators have had only a few days to read the 868-page legislation and called for a three-week hiatus so lawmakers have time to review it.
"It's hard to digest," he told reporters after meeting, which lasted about 90 minutes.
Later on Wednesday, Mr. Paul came under fire from Democrats on the Senate floor, who suggested that if the Kentucky senator is unfamiliar with the legislation he has only himself to blame.
"I think there's a responsibility on the behalf of the committee members to be active in the committee," said Sen. Al Franken, Minnesota Democrat. "To come to hearings, to be engaged in the process, to approach the chairman — isn't that part of our responsibility?"
The HELP Committee has held about 10 hearings on education reform over the past two years, Mr. Harkin said, though none have been held since Mr. Paul began his term in January.
Before the markup's abrupt ending, the committee had begun moving through 144 amendments, 74 of which were filed by Mr. Paul. He said that he believes the reform package, crafted by HELP Committee Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, and Sen. Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican, too closely mirrors the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, which represented the Bush administration's signature education achievement.
But Mr. Harkin, Mr. Enzi and others reject the notion that they're merely tweaking NCLB and point out that their proposal eliminates much of it, including the much-maligned "adequate yearly process" (AYP) system, which calls for sanctions if 100 percent of students are not proficient in reading and math by 2014.
The Harkin plan includes other major changes, such as letting states design their own accountability systems and establishing a system of federal intervention for only the worst-performing 5 percent of schools in a state and the 5 percent with the largest achievement gaps between ethnic groups.
Mr. Harkin said that the committee will not be deterred by Mr. Paul's delay and that he will circumvent the Kentucky senator's tactics by continuing the markup before and after each day's Senate session.
"If senators think we will be deterred in our determination to move this bill through committee, I can assure you that is not the case. We can start early, we can stay late. We will complete work on this bill," he said.
Mr. Harkin also took aim at the number of amendments filed by Mr. Paul, accusing him of holding up the legislative process for partisan reasons. During a speech on the floor, he admonished his colleagues that "no one person gets to dictate what's in this bill."
Wednesday's episode raises questions about how quickly the committee can move through the amendment process and get the bill to the Senate floor. Earlier this week, Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, was optimistic that a bill could be on President Obama's desk "by Christmas."
Even if the Harkin bill is passed by the Senate during the next few weeks, it would have to be reconciled with the House proposal. Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, has taken a piece-by-piece approach, pushing bills dealing with charter schools, eliminating duplicative federal programs and providing funding flexibility for states and districts through his panel.
Mr. Kline and his fellow Republicans will introduce at least one more bill aimed at recruiting more effective teachers and reforming how schools are accountable to the federal government.
With much work to be done in both chambers, several lawmakers have lamented the fact that reform efforts are now hung up on "process," while school districts and states continue to live under NCLB mandates. Sen. Michael F. Bennet, Colorado Democrat and HELP committee member, said Wednesday's events reinforce the negative opinions most Americans have about Congress.
"There's a reason we have a 12 percent approval rating," he said on the Senate floor.
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