- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 19, 2003

An experimental vouchers program for D.C. schools passed its key test yesterday when a joint House-Senate committee added the provision to the omnibus spending package Congress hopes to approve before lawmakers adjourn this year.

The full House and Senate must still vote on the provision, but since it is part of the massive spending bill, it is almost certain to pass because opponents are unlikely to block the entire bill just to defeat the measure.

Still, some Democrats on the committee were furious about vouchers being included.

“We don’t have the votes to take it out, but I will just say some of us believe education reform is achieved not by giving a few people a voucher, but by giving all children a chance,” said Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat.

Mrs. Landrieu said she doesn’t oppose vouchers, but said the way the D.C. program was structured it would divert money from other federal accounts and wouldn’t do enough to target the money to children in failing schools.

The $40 million bill allots about $13 million for the vouchers, $13 million for D.C. public schools, and $13 million for charter schools. The pilot program is authorized for five years and gives priority to students in failing schools.

“We will learn something from this program,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, who joined the Republican leaders in backing the experiment.

The voucher initiative passed the House by one vote in September and passed the Senate Appropriations Committee, but has never been presented to the entire Senate.

Still, enough senators supported it in the House-Senate committee yesterday that it passed by consent and became part of the overall bill.

President Bush and D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams have pushed for a city vouchers program. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C. Democrat, is against the plan.

But Mr. Bush suffered a defeat in another part of the overall spending bill yesterday when lawmakers approved rolling back rules from his Federal Communications Commission regarding television-station-ownership rules.

The FCC had wanted to allow companies to own stations that reach up to 45 percent of the national market, an increase from 35 percent. But the joint House-Senate committee voted to keep the 35 percent limit.

The committee did uphold the FCC on another rules change, though, allowing the commission to repeal media cross-ownership rules. Those rules have prohibited companies from owning both a newspaper and a television station in the same media market.

Of the 13 appropriations bills Congress must pass each year to fund government, six have passed Congress and another two are expected to pass as individual bills soon. That leaves five bills to roll into the omnibus bill.

The overall spending bill is expected to exceed $280 billion.

The House-Senate appropriations committee working out the bill adjourned yesterday after snagging over rules banning human-embryo cloning. Conservatives want to include broader language than what’s in the bill, giving more specifics about what would be banned.

Still to come is a fight over the administration’s proposed rules on how companies classify employees eligible for overtime.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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