Williams Gives Boost To GOP on Vouchers

Senate Republicans said yesterday they were increasingly confident of peeling off enough Democratic votes to win passage of a District school voucher plan next week, although Democratic leaders vowed a fierce fight against creating the nation’s first federally funded voucher program. With floor debate set to begin as early as Tuesday, several Senate GOP aides said a lobbying blitz by D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) has swayed both Republican moderates who have opposed vouchers in the past and conservative-leaning Democrats who might otherwise be reluctant to buck the party. The mayor has met with 20 senators, including eight this week, and appears on camera in a new television ad paid for by the pro-voucher American Education Reform Foundation that will star airing today on Washington area cable and broadcast channels, aides said. “Next week, we will have a unique opportunity to give D.C. schoolchildren and parents a choice,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said in a statement yesterday. “I am hopeful that we will succeed in this endeavor.” If the GOP majority is successful at holding ranks, Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) and other anti-voucher Democrats, such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), would face a choice — whether to use parliamentary tactics to try to bottle up the measure and the $5.6 billion District budget bill to which it is attached, or swallow the outcome and use the controversial issue against vulnerable Republicans in next year’s elections. A Daschle spokeswoman said Democrats had made no final decision on floor strategy and would wait until senators return next week. But Kennedy said through a spokesman that Republicans will have to show they can muster 60 votes to cut off debate in the 100-member Senate. “Democrats would like the chance to debate this on the Senate floor and are confident that there are the votes necessary to defeat this proposal,” Kennedy spokesman Jim Manley said. “They are going to need to demonstrate they have 60 votes, and I seriously question whether they are able to get that vote.” The Senate legislation, the only remaining piece of a $75 million national education choice proposal by President Bush, would award grants of up to $7,500 to at least 1,700 District children in families whose income falls below 185 percent of the federal poverty level — $34,000 for a family of four — to attend private or parochial schools. Last week, the House approved a $10 million voucher measure by a single vote, 209 to 208, after a vigorous debate over whether diverting taxpayer funds to private schools would speed reform within the District’s struggling, 68,000-student public school system. The Senate plan includes some accountability measures for private and parochial schools that receive taxpayer funds, such as student testing, and carves out a greater role for the mayor in overseeing administration of the voucher program. The measure also includes $26 million for District public charter and regular schools. If the legislation is approved, the differences would have to be hammered out in a House-Senate conference. Besides Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who voted for the measure in committee, and Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.), who has pledged his vote, voucher supporters were focusing on Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.), John Breaux (La.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Thomas R. Carper (Del.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.). Among Republicans, Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) voted against the provision in committee. Sens. Lincoln D. Chafee (R.I.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) have expressed sympathy with Williams’s arguments for the measure, but none has said whether that would offset previous opposition to vouchers. An aide to Sen. Michael D. Crapo (R-Idaho) said he opposes vouchers. In his lobbying efforts, the mayor has urged senators to help District children and deliver a vote of confidence in him on an issue on which he has stepped far out of line with many Democrats, both nationally and in the District. Williams spokesman Tony Bullock said the mayor is so confident the measure will pass if it is allowed to come to a vote that he has concentrated on securing the votes needed to end floor debate, claiming at least 55. “We’re not asking them to support the bill, but if they would . . . let the majority of the Senate express its will, that would be very helpful to our effort,” Bullock said. “Many senators used to be governors, used to be mayors . . . so they’re ready to defer to what Mayor Williams is asking for his city, even if they don’t personally agree with the larger issue of school vouchers.” Senate Democrats cautioned against predicting the outcome, although some aides warned of “slippage” in the opposition camp. The Republican majority controls the schedule of the Senate and can pull the bill from the calendar if it runs into trouble. Senate GOP leaders could then roll the District budget bill into an omnibus federal budget bill containing hundreds of billions of dollars of federal appropriations, making it harder for Democrats to defeat.