Higher ed fares better than expected in appropriations battle

(U-WIRE) Baltimore -The appropriations bill passed by Congress last Thursday includes modest increases for some federal student aid programs, a surprise victory for higher education in difficult fiscal times.
Lawmakers agreed to increase the maximum Pell Grant award by $50 to $4,050 against the wishes of the Bush administration, which sought to freeze the program at the $4,000 level through 2004. Colleges fought for the increase because of the weak economy, cuts in state aid and increasing enrollment.
“This is not representative of the most stellar year in terms of numbers, but it is significant given the significant obstacles we had faced this year,” said Cynthia Littlefield, director of federal relations for the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. “I feel it’s very significant that Congress felt the need to make a statement of principle of their continued support for the Pell program … against the wishes of the administration.”
Despite Bush’s opposition, he is expected to sign the bill because it also includes an additional $10 billion in defense spending. Both Congress and the administration were eager to reach closure on a spending bill for 2003, which was passed four months later than usual.
The spending bill includes $576 million to help cover the Pell program’s deficit, which has risen in recent years as demand for assistance has increased beyond budget forecasts. In addition, the Secondary Education Opportunity Grant, Gear Up and TRIO programs will receive additional funds, and the Perkins loan and federal work-study programs will be level-funded.
The final bill represents a dramatic change from what was originally expected just one week earlier, when President Bush released his spending plan that included cuts to most student aid programs. The president wanted to ensure that the Pell program’s $1 billion deficit was eliminated before pursuing increases. Lobbyists had expected that the Republican-dominated Congress would defer to the President, but Littlefield said the hard line stance of the Office of Management and Budget irked even some of the President’s supporters in the House.
Vice President Dick Cheney was eventually called into negotiations, at which point the administration and Congress made more progress on a compromise bill.
“There is a consensus among many Democrats and moderate Republicans that this is a good thing to do,” said Tom Powell-Bullock, a spokesman for Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., who argued in favor of the bill.