Senate votes to reverse some cuts

    In a close vote, the U.S. Senate has passed an amendment to the 2006 fiscal year budget resolution that would reverse many of the higher education cuts sought by President George W. Bush next year. The approved plan would also increase the maximum Pell Grant award from $4,050 to $4,500 and restore the Perkins Loan program, which the Bush administration proposed eliminating.

    In comparison, Bush’s proposal would have increased the top Pell Grant by $100 this year and to $4,550 over the next five years. The amendment, which increases funding in the education portion of the budget resolution, was introduced by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

    U.S. Student Association President Ajita Talwalker said that the increased grant size and restoration of the Perkins Loans, which financially needy students receive directly from universities, are essential to funding education.

    “I think the amendment was a tremendous step toward improving education,” Talwalker said.

    The House of Representatives has passed its own version of the budget. Both the House and Senate resolutions include elements of the Bush administration’s plans to reduce government subsidies to banks that provide student loans.

    However, the House version of the bill directs leaders on the Education and Workforce Committee to eliminate the Perkins Loan program, according to Angela Cuke, a spokeswoman for the committee.

    “The House leaves those [funding] decisions to the Education and Workforce Committee,” Cuke said. “But the Perkins Loans are a special case. It is a very small percentage of overall loans, and it is underperforming. Other loans are more efficient, so the bill suggests that they would have funding priority.”

    However, Talwalker said she supports the Senate’s proposal to restore the Perkins Loan funding.

    “I think [cutting the Perkins Loan] is problematic,” Talwalker said. “A minuscule increase to the Pell Grant while simultaneously reducing student loans will make higher education inaccessible to students.”

    The Senate budget resolution includes a series of proposals made by the Student Aid Alliance, a coalition of several higher education groups. Those proposals include reversing the Bush administration’s proposed cuts to outreach programs and increasing funding to graduate education programs and work study.

    The $5.4 billion Senate budget resolution will be paid for by closing several corporate tax loopholes, Kennedy said.

    “Reversing President Bush’s tax cuts will fund the bill,” Kennedy’s spokeswoman Melissa Wagoner said.

    However, Senator Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who debated against Kennedy’s amendment on the Senate floor and who serves as the chairman of the Senate’s Budget Committee, said he was concerned over the cost of the changes.

    “Senator Gregg doesn’t support the amendment because it could cost taxpayers $5.4 billion,” said Cara Duckworgh, a spokeswoman for the Republican majority on the committee. “He doesn’t believe in increasing taxes to increase spending.”

    Kennedy’s education amendment would also decrease the $4.3 billion Pell Grant shortfall. The deficit has been caused by a larger-than-expected number of qualified applicants applying for the aid program in recent years. Because it is an “entitlement program,” the government must currently provide aid to all applicants who meet set criteria, even if the number surpasses the budgeted levels approved by Congress.

    “I am pleased by my amendment’s passage and the signal it sends that this Senate can come together and restore Bush’s education budget cuts so that students can compete in the global economy,” Kennedy stated in a press release.

    The congressional budget resolution provides an outline for lawmakers to pass the federal budget but does not necessarily reflect how the final spending plan will look. If approved, the plan will go into effect for the 2006 fiscal year, which begins in July.

    When Congress reconvenes next week after a two-week spring recess, a conference committee between members of the House and Senate will attempt to reconcile differences in the two versions of the budget resolution. The committee will decide whether the final version will include Kennedy’s amendment.

    The White House Press Office did not return calls seeking comment.

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