- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2003

A Republican bill giving states more control over the Head Start preschool program passed the House by one vote yesterday after two Democrats failed to participate, including Rep. Richard A. Gephardt who was campaigning in South Carolina.

“Only two Democrats did not vote,” a House Democratic leadership official said. The two were Mr. Gephardt and Rep. Ed Pastor of Arizona, whose father had suffered a heart attack and who would have voted to kill the bill.

Republican leaders had to pull the bill from the calendar last week when it did not have enough votes to pass, but Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, brought up the measure again and it squeaked by in the early morning yesterday by a margin of 217 to 216.

“The former Democratic leader is obviously out there, picking and choosing the votes that are important for his own campaign and for the Democrats,” a Democratic leadership aide said of Mr. Gephardt’s presidential bid.

Mr. Gephardt has missed 356 roll call votes since January, according to a running tally maintained by the Republican National Committee’s Research Department.

Mr. Gephardt’s campaign spokesman yesterday said the Missouri Democrat’s decision to skip the vote did not lead to the bill’s narrow approval and it had been unclear whether the bill would be considered.

“The bill came up in the middle of the night, and we were unable to come back for it,” said Erik Smith, Mr. Gephardt’s campaign press secretary.

Besides, Mr. Smith said, even if Mr. Gephardt had stayed to vote against it, Mr. DeLay would have been able to secure whatever votes he needed to ensure the bill’s passage.

“It’s a significant issue and it’s a bad bill. If he were there, he would have voted against it,” Mr. Smith said.

But the Democratic leadership aide said that it was clear by the middle of the day on Thursday that the Head Start bill was coming up for a vote that evening, before Mr. Gephardt left for his campaign event.

“We knew there would be a vote on this about midday. They [Republican leaders] said there was going to be a vote,” the Democratic official said.

“Gephardt was here Thursday. We had the trade-bill votes on Singapore and Chile. Those are key votes for him,” he said.

The House bill, which would let eight states run the education program for the poor, is a scaled-back version of the administration’s plan to turn over management of Head Start to all the states along with the federal funds to finance them. Democrats also opposed a provision that allows religious groups running Head Start programs to consider an employment applicant’s religion.

The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, traditionally strong backers of Democrats, bitterly opposed the bill. The NEA, the nation’s largest teachers union, said it was “disappointed in last night’s vote in the House for legislation that fails to protect Head Start.”

But union officials yesterday were reluctant to say anything critical of Mr. Gephardt’s decision to skip the Head Start vote. “I really can’t speak to that,” said Leslie Getzinger, a spokeswoman for the AFT.

Yesterday, the Republican leader of the Senate committee that will first address the legislation in that chamber promised to work with Democrats over their concerns.

“I am committed to working with my colleagues in the Senate, on both sides of the aisle, to craft a bill that best serves the children,” Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, told the Associated Press.

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