Lawmakers who want to prevent thousands of teacher layoffs but oppose spending more money on the war in Afghanistan face a dilemma in Congress this week.
Funding to prevent layoffs of thousands of teachers across the country is being blocked by "deficit-hawks" in Congress. To try to get around that stonewall, Democratic leaders have attached funding for education jobs to the $30 billion supplemental war appropriations measure requested by President Obama.
Late Tuesday night, House Democratic leaders announced they had put together a war spending bill that, along with the $30 billion for the Afghanistan troop surge, includes a $10 billion Education Jobs Fund to help local school districts avoid approximately 140,000 teacher layoffs when schools reopen in September. It also provides $5 billion to fill a shortfall in Pell Grant funding for low-income college students. Another roughly $30 billion would fund police and firefighter jobs, disaster assistance, foreign aid, border security, and disability benefits for Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange.
Bowing to right-wing pressure, House Democratic leaders said these funds would be paid for by cutting money previously appropriated in the stimulus bill and other bills for things like community development and rural Internet projects. They said unspent defense funds would also be used to cover the costs.
The Senate passed a $59 billion version of the war funding bill on May 27.
A $23 billion emergency education jobs funding measure introduced in the Senate by Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, went nowhere because of the deficit frenzy being whipped up by Republicans, with support from some Blue Dog Democrats.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been pressing Congress to approve the war funding before the congressional July 4 recess.
Progressive House members have pushed for a separate vote on the war money. Some Congressional Progressive Caucus members say they will vote against the entire supplemental funding bill if they are not given a chance to vote against the war funding separately, Roll Call reported.
"Those who want to vote to continue funding the war that I disagreed with and they want should be allowed to make that vote," said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who has opposed the Afghanistan war from its start. "For those of us who want to see the creation of jobs, Haiti [earthquake aid], all of the other domestic priorities, we should have a separate vote."
"Don't ask people like me to have to vote for a bill that provides funding for teachers and funding for a war," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. "It's not right to do that."
But, according to Roll Call, Democratic leaders feel that, without the cover of the war money, "moderate" Democrats cowed by the Republican deficit-cutting hysteria will not support the education and other domestic funding.
Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., told Politico, "Our problem right now is a significant number of moderates don't want to vote for the domestic spending and a significant number of progressives don't want to vote for the war funding."
Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., a leading opponent of spending more for the war, suggested to Roll Call that Blue Dog Democrats should vote to "support the basic needs of people in this country."
"I know they have their pay-for business," she added, "but then they should start looking at taking money out of defense, and that would pay for a lot."
House leaders were said to be considering holding separate votes on the war spending and the other programs, but then combining the measures into one bill. This would allow antiwar lawmakers to register their opposition to the war funding.
Congressional Democrats are reportedly assessing the mood of voters in their districts: Do voters think cutting the deficit is more important than preventing mass teacher layoffs? Should teacher jobs, help for veterans suffering from Agent Orange disease, or Pell Grants, depend on spending more money for war? Grassroots public education and peace advocates have a challenge on their hands this week: get the message to Congress.
Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have set up special web pages where public education supporters can contact their members of Congress and ask them to pass the Education Jobs Fund.
Meanwhile Peace Action is urging calls to members of Congress asking for no more war funding and asking them to co-sponsor HR 5015, the Feingold-McGovern bill which would set an Afghanistan withdrawal timetable. Calls can be made via the Peace Action website or to 1-800-427-8619.
Photo: Five thousand Michigan school employees and supporters of public education attended a Michigan Education Association rally at the state Capitol in Lansing, June 24. Michigan's budget problems will become significantly worse and state programs will be put at risk if Congress doesn't revive a federal spending bill, Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm said Friday. (AP/Greg DeRuiter - Lansing State Journal)