- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Rep. John Dingell, Michigan Democrat, is fond of saying, “If you let me write the procedure, and I let you write the substance, I’ll (beat) you every time.” His words never had more relevance than during the final weeks of a congressional session, when legislation often lives or dies based on creative use of the rules.

Republicans in Congress lack unfettered control over the process, particularly in the closely divided Senate. Yet, they have enough weapons in their procedural arsenal to possibly authorize funding the District of Columbia’s school voucher program — $10 million in new money providing scholarships for K-12 students and needed competitionto strengthenpublic schools. Completing action on this measure — even if it’s done in an unorthodox way — would represent a major victory for those seeking hope, opportunity and choice for kids and parents now trapped in a failing school system.

Here’s the current state of play on scholarships for D.C. schools. The House passed a measure providing funding as part of the D.C. Appropriations bill. Soon after, the full Senate Appropriations Committee passed the funding on a bipartisan vote. Yet now that Senate Republicans seek to bring the measure to the full Senate, Democrats refuse to consider the legislation. Failing to negotiate the timeframe is a filibuster. The Senate cannot consider the bill without consent and the Democrats refuse. Adopting a cloture petition (which allows consideration of the bill) is the only way to break the logjam, but this requires 60 votes for passage. While supporters of D.C. vouchers likely have a bipartisan majority in the Senate, garnering 60 votes is a tall order. Given this procedural quagmire, lawmakers will not likely consider the voucher provision as a separate matter this year. And so it goes — another critical school reform provision, blocked by a minority of pro-union Democrats in the Senate.

But two can tango in this dance of legislation. There is another way for D.C. scholarship supporters to win this year, but it will take skillful use of the process and some luck to get it done.

Republicans should acknowledge that this has been an unprecedented year in the appropriations process. In addition to the normal pressures of completing action on 13 appropriations bills, lawmakers tackled two major supplemental spending bills this year, one funding the war in Iraq and the other to provide necessary funds for reconstruction (House-Senate negotiators are hammering out the differences in the Iraq reconstruction as this column goes to press). The lawmakers and staff involved in passing these major supplemental spending bills are the same people trying to finish the regular appropriations process. Until we authorize cloning for legislators or extend the 24-hour day for staff, being at two places at the same time is the only way to fix this problem.

Add into this mix a closely divided Senate, where Democrats possess the means and motives to obstruct the legislative process, and it makes it difficult for the trains to run on time.

To solve this problem, Republican leaders may wrap the six remaining FY’ 04 appropriations bills that passed the House, but not the Senate, and any other unfinished funding measures, into an omnibus year-end spending bill. Packaging the legislation this way avoids each individual measure being subject to possible procedural shenanigans.

This is not the preferred course of action, but it may be the only option that guarantees completing work on the spending measures in a timely manner.

And this is where D.C. choice has another chance. Lawmakers should include this measure in the omnibus-spending package, if the Democrats block the Senate from considering the D.C. bill on a separate track next week. As one Senate leadership aide said, “authorizing the voucher program was adopted by a bipartisan vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee and would garner a majority in the full Senate. The Democrats just refuse to let us have a vote on it.”

Including the voucher proposal in the omnibus-spending bill is one way Republicans could use procedural clout in the same way Democrats use theirs. In a multibillion dollar measure, including funding for everything from farm programs to foreign aid, Democrats would have to try to derail billions of dollars in spending they want, and possibly shut down the federal government, to defend the status quo in the D.C.’s school system and their union friends. If Republican leaders choose this tactic, it demonstrates a wise and prudent use of procedural power — the Dingell maxim in action. Saving D.C. school choice is a fight worth waging, and the right thing to do.

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