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The Senate halted debate over a federal school voucher program for the District yesterday after Republican backers opened last-minute talks with two Democrats who offered to support the plan if it imposed tougher requirements on private schools receiving the taxpayer funds.

Senate Republican leaders, nervous about whether they had the votes needed to pass the $ 13 million program or override a possible filibuster by Democrats, agreed to consider the changes sought by Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.) and Thomas R. Carper (Del.) in the hope of attracting more support.

A spokeswoman for Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said Republicans hoped to reach an agreement with the two Democrats in time to begin voting today, the Senate's schedule permitting.

The Senate measure would award up to $ 7,500 per child to at least 1,700 low-income District children to attend private or parochial schools. The plan would include another $ 26 million for District charter schools and regular public schools. By a single vote, the House this month passed a version that provides only $ 10 million in voucher money, enough to cover about 1,300 children.

Landrieu and Carper proposed yesterday that voucher students be tested at their private school under the same student assessment rules that public schools are required to meet under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. They also proposed that the voucher students' instructors meet the same teacher qualification standards as those imposed on public school teachers. And they sought changes that would limit voucher eligibility to students from the lowest-performing District public schools and prevent any private school from charging voucher students a tuition greater than the maximum $ 7,500 voucher grant.

Carper also sought a change under which private schools would face a cutoff of voucher funds after three years if their voucher students did not match the annual yearly progress on tests that is demanded of public schools under No Child Left Behind.

"This is about making consistent federal policy," said Bill Ghent, spokesman for Carper.

"If we are going to put federal dollars into private schools for the first time, we ought to hold private schools receiving federal dollars to the same standards as the public schools."

The willingness of both sides to prolong discussions suggested that the fate of the voucher legislation, which is attached to the District's $ 5.6 billion budget for 2004, remained very much in doubt.

But some voucher proponents said that private schools were unlikely to accept the conditions sought by Landrieu and Carper and that their proposals were an effort to score political points rather than a sincere attempt at compromise.

"The very freedom private schools have is what makes them more successful than their counterparts here in the District," said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a pro-voucher and school choice group. "It's more bureaucracy, more paperwork, and once you give any education system license to control a private institution, they will take it and run."

Allen said of the two Democratic senators: "It sounds like they are more interested in placating [public education] interest groups than in doing something that is successful."

Voucher foes said the Republicans' interest in a last-minute deal reflected the problems the GOP faced in winning passage of the legislation.

Some opponents also said that any diversion of public money for private and religious schools was unacceptable.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), asked whether she and other voucher foes welcomed Carper and Landrieu's "improvements" to the bill, replied, "Can you be a little bit pregnant?"

It was unclear last night whether Republicans would agree to any of the changes, or to the insistence by Carper and Landrieu that any concessions survive final House-Senate negotiations -- a guarantee that the majority party hardly ever issues.

But Frist's deputy chief of staff, Eric M. Ueland, said, "As long as the principle is preserved, the leader has demonstrated over the months he is interested in the practical."

The 11th-hour negotiations added drama to the voucher fight. The Senate suspended business for hours while knots of members and aides huddled in the ornate well to haggle over changes to the bill. In between those meetings, Landrieu and Carper were pulled into nearby offices by Norton and Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and their aides, as well as by Frist and District appropriations chief Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) and their staff.

White House lobbyists have called the voucher plan one of President Bush's top priorities along with the 2001 reforms in the No Child Left Behind Act.

"Make no mistake, we are spending new money, not taking money from one program and putting it somewhere else, not robbing Peter to pay Paul," DeWine said in introducing the bill yesterday.

The public education establishment, meanwhile, has pressed Democrats to brook no compromise in opposing vouchers in the nation's capital, saying the program would erode church-state separation and weaken public schools.

The 2.7 million-member National Education Association, the country's largest teachers union, wrote senators Tuesday, urging them to vote against the D.C. budget or support a filibuster if necessary.

"Rather than experimenting with programs already found to make no real difference in student achievement, Congress should focus on making sure all students in the District of Columbia, and across the country, have the tools for success," the NEA wrote, arguing for smaller classes, greater parent involvement, better classroom materials and higher teacher standards.