When the Senate passed its education bill six weeks ago, it was widely hailed as a model of bipartisan cooperation. But the measure is now facing a final obstacle, which could prevent it from reaching the president's desk for many weeks to come.
That's because it must first pass through a conference committee - a small group of members handpicked by House and Senate leaders who are now haggling over differences in their respective versions of the bill.
One of the last vestiges of the smoke-filled back room, the conference committee has been around in one form or another since the days of the first Congress. Designed to resolve discrepancies between House and Senate bills, it also gives individual members a final chance to cut deals and rework legislation - or delay a bill's passage, sometimes indefinitely.
Committees vary in size from just a handful of senators and representatives to several hundred - as was the case in 1981, when more than 250 members were conferees for then-President Reagan's budget bill.
Of course, when one party controls both chambers of Congress, they are often unnecessary, or are rubber-stamp affairs. During the GOP-led Congress of 1993-94, for example, only 62 of the 465 bills passed into law required a conference at all.
Pivotal role in split Congress
But now, with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats in charge of the Senate, more power is likely to rest with the small band of lawmakers who negotiate the final product.
Moreover, in a narrowly divided Congress, where the defection of a few members can determine the outcome of a vote, conference committees may become critical tools for the leadership to block legislation it can't defeat on the floor.
"With the houses split, what comes out of the two houses is going to be significantly different, more so than if they were both controlled by one or the other party," says Barbara Sinclair, a political scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles. And when the bills are that different, the conference committee has "much more room for discretion. Also much more room, probably, for making everybody in their home chambers mad."
The education conference began meeting last week and is proceeding on an accelerated schedule, though it appears unlikely to conclude before the August recess. The Senate also recently named conferees for an upcoming conference on bankruptcy legislation.
However, this kind of activity is relatively new for the 107th Congress. Before the Democrats gained control of the Senate, the Republican leadership controlling both houses had little use for conference committees.
For example, the final compromise on the president's tax cut was largely worked out by just four key lawmakers who were a fraction of the official committee: Sens. Charles Grassley (R), Max Baucus (D), and John Breaux (D), and Rep. Bill Thomas (R).
Although Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York was technically appointed as a tax-cut conferee, he was not included in any of the negotiations that took place - though that didn't stop him from showing up one night.
"Nobody had told him he wasn't invited, so he went down there," says Rep. Rangel's spokesman Dan Maffei. "They made it clear that he was not welcome."
Under a 1975 "sunshine law," conference committee meetings are supposed to be open. But in practice, say those familiar with the process, this can make it almost impossible for lawmakers to reach an agreement.
"In essence, these folks [would] have to sit up there in front of their friends, and their allies in the lobbying community, and ... retreat from those things they promised they would never, ever give up," says Professor Sinclair.
As a result, conferees wind up doing a great deal of their negotiating unofficially and behind closed doors. Often, it's the staff, rather than the members, who conduct the bulk of the meetings and act as the primary go-betweens. "By the time there is an open meeting, all the deals have been cut," says Sinclair.
Since the education conference committee had its first official meeting last week, staff meetings have been taking place "almost daily," says Dave Schnittger, an aide to Rep. John Boehmer (R) of Ohio, chairman of the conference.
"On a bill this size, you're going to see 80 to 90 percent of the meetings taking place at the staff level," he says, with lawmakers being brought in "either when there are agreements to be ratified or thorny issues that are in need of a breakthrough."
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, the chief Senate negotiator, says he expects to hold an official meeting some time next week to ratify certain agreements.
The main sticking points conferees will need to work out have to do with questions of accountability and flexibility.
The House bill would hold schools to tougher standards than the Senate version, by requiring that they demonstrate not only progress among students overall, but progress in closing the achievement gap between minorities and disadvantaged children and their peers. Critics argue that this standard will doom many schools to failure.
The House bill also would give schools more flexibility in how they use federal funds than would the Senate version.
Another striking difference between the bills is cost. While the House bill calls for $23 billion in education spending next year, the Senate bill would require more than $41 billion.
But in the end, this difference may not be all that difficult to resolve, says Mr. Schnittger. "On an issue like that - and I'm not saying this is what's going to happen, by any means - you can always just split the difference," he says.
"Pick the number in the middle, and there's your compromise."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor