Senate Spending Work Kicks Off With House Recessed for the Summer

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter

All is not quiet on the northern front of the U.S. Capitol as Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) presses forward — working during a month typically reserved for congressional recess — to make headway on high profile spending bills that could push a number of higher education priorities to the forefront of floor debate.

With three separate legislative vehicles seeing movement at the same time, it is likely that a number of administrative priorities could start to shape up in the weeks to come, while other campaign promises begin to dissipate.

This week the Senate is making its way through a bipartisan infrastructure proposal, which does not include many higher education policy issues previously outlined by President Joe Biden, such as the proposal in his American Jobs Plan to invest $12 billion in community college infrastructure and his American Families Plan proposals to provide two years of free community college, as well as tuition breaks, to low- and moderate-income students attending historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other minority serving institutions (MSIs).

While those policies were not included in the base of the bipartisan infrastructure bill they could see some consideration during the amendment process but will very likely see more substantial movement in another budget bill.

Tacked onto the bipartisan proposal is the beginnings of the reconciliation process which could advance to the Senate floor as soon as next week. Under this special budget process Democrats could more easily enact policies that do not garner bipartisan buy-in since support from a simple majority is all that is needed to pass a reconciliation bill.

However the timeline for this procedure is tight since the Senate has been scheduled to take the bulk of August for its recess. Further, a recent positive COVID-19 test from Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) could complicate efforts to work through the chamber’s parliamentary rules.

The Senate also has to sort out its annual appropriations process and is slated to consider some of its 12 must-pass funding bills during its summer agenda but the Department of Education (ED) spending numbers have not yet been unveiled.

The House, before leaving for recess, worked through its Labor-HHS-Education spending plan as a part of a bundled appropriations bill and passed that measure on July 29 on a party-line vote of  219-208.

Specifically, that bill would include a 41% increase above the fiscal year (FY) 2021 enacted level for ED programs, matching the president’s budget request of $102.8 billion in discretionary appropriations for ED.

While we wait for more clarity on the Senate’s drafting of legislation there are a number of specific policies that NASFAA is following throughout this process: 

— Double Pell: The administration has pledged to double the maximum Pell Grant award and as a part of the annual appropriations cycle both the president and House Democrats have included a $400 increase in discretionary funding to the maximum Pell Grant that would boost the 2022-23 maximum award to $6,895. In the American Families Plan released in April, the administration proposed an additional increase of $1,475 in mandatory funding to the maximum award. Because the reconciliation process typically makes changes in mandatory spending, the administration could use this package as a legislative vehicle for the $1,475 mandatory increase already proposed in the American Families Plan.

— Free community college: As previously noted, Biden has unveiled a plan that would provide two years of free community college, a proposal that could find its way into the legislative text of a reconciliation package.

— DACA: Democrats have also floated the idea of codifying Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) into law by using the budget reconciliation process, but it is unclear at this time whether the Senate’s parliamentarian will rule that the language abides by the strict budget rules.

— Campus-based aid programs: House appropriators and the White House have proposed increases for the campus-based aid programs which include boosting the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG), Federal Work-Study (FWS), Federal TRIO programs, GEAR UP, and Career technical education (CTE) programs.

The issue of student loan debt cancelation and the repayment pause has had a lot of fodder in congressional hearings but no new legislative solutions, outside of Schumer calling on the White House to use executive authority to cancel debt, have taken footing in legislative text. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) successfully included a provision in a pandemic relief bill that would make student loan debt forgiveness tax-free through 2025, but with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent comments, indicating that broad forgiveness would require congressional approval, it is unclear whether Democrats will move forward with such a plan.

With the House set to return September 20, the need for a funding extension to keep the government open at the start of the fiscal 2022 year is becoming increasingly likely, especially considering that House Republicans have continually faulted a number of provisions in each spending proposal and not one has endorsed the spending plan.

Those drawn out negotiations, coupled with infrastructure talks, the Senate’s delayed start to the annual appropriations process and the continued prevalence of the pandemic could spur significant legislative activity for the fall.

Stay tuned to Today’s News as we cover the Senate’s August session.


Publication Date: 8/5/2021

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