WASHINGTON — Education was almost an issue lawmakers could agree on - for example, that kids deserved a good education and that some public schools weren't providing it.
Both Republican and Democratic administrations proposed a national test to help get a handle on the problem. The public backs the idea. It won't cost much. It's voluntary.
But as Congress returns from a week-long recess this week, President Clinton's national test proposal could prove the legislative flashpoint.
"No one anticipated such an uproar over this issue," says Paul Anir of the conservative lobby group Empower America.
"Under the Bush administration, the Republicans were for it and the Democrats shot it down. Now, a Democratic president is for it, and the Republicans are shooting it down," he says.
The Senate approved a revised version of the Clinton test plan with a lopsided 87-13 vote. The House voted to block the tests, 295-195. A conference committee continues a search for a compromise.
Meanwhile, House Republicans threaten to bottle up other education bills in committee if the testing plan is not dropped. Senate Democrats threaten a filibuster if it is. Clinton promises to veto any bill that does not including national tests.
With appropriation deadlines looming, a presidential veto could shut down the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education.
"The president has made clear that he'll veto any bill that does not allow him to go forward with the national tests," says Mike Cohen, the president's special adviser on education. "It would be a shame if the Republicans tried to shut down a big chunk of government over a voluntary test of basic skills. I'd like to see them explain that."
The stakes in this debate are high, and analysts on both sides say that the testing flap could set the terms of the 1998 election.
"Both sides are playing chicken and it's not clear who wins in a crash. Clinton has been masterfully good at putting the onus on Congress for being against education," says Chester Finn, an Education department official in the Reagan administration.
Whatever the outcome, education is replacing "tax rage" as a way for governors to stake out a national reputation - or to win office. Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic Governors' Association, is urging Democratic hopefuls to focus their campaigns on the classroom.
"Every time they [Republicans] talk about race, abortion, gay rights, the Confederate flag, or guns, we will talk about education, education, education, and health care," he told reporters at a Monitor breakfast last week.
But Republicans insist that they have their own positive agenda for education. On Oct. 17, House Republican leaders announced a schedule of votes for their "Republican Agenda for the American Learner." These include: education IRAs for K-12 expenses, $100 million a year for innovative charter schools, and K-12 scholarships for low-income students.
"We want to take our ideas for expanded parental choice beyond the Beltway and create the kind of competitive environment that will improve standards in schools," says Terry Holt, a spokesman for the House Republican Conference.
"Education is now one of the dominant points of debate in the country. Across America, parents, teachers, and local officials are in hand-to-hand combat over who controls the education agenda in their community," he says.
Republicans say that national tests are just another example of federal bureaucrats trying to set standards for communities as diverse as New York and Peoria.
In the last two weeks, Senate Republicans have rallied opposition to the Clinton testing plan. Sen. John Ashcroft (R) of Missouri has signed on 34 senators who say they will oppose including national tests in the final appropriations bill.
"Our support has gone from 13 to 34 in about a week and a half," says a Republican staff member.
The White House and Education Department officials insist that this is a fight they can win. "There may be political momentum inside the Beltway against tests, but the public still favors testing. Parents want to know how their kids are doing," says Education Department spokeswoman Susan Frost.
Some 79 percent of Americans support national tests, according to a recent Wall Street Journal/ NBC News poll.
The Education Department is also trying to win the support of the Hispanic Caucus, the Black Caucus, and civil rights groups, who have opposed national tests because they will stigmatize minority students. White House officials admit that such efforts are making little headway.
"Tests such as President Clinton is proposing reinforce the notion that there are kids who don't learn and that dead-end programs are OK for them. These kids are disproportionately poor and recent immigrants," says Monty Neill, associate director of the Cambridge, Mass.-based National Center for Fair and Open Testing.