What’s Next on ESEA?

Tell me if you disagree, my fellow wonks and pundits, but I don’t think anyone predicted a 22-0 vote from the Senate HELP committee on ESEA reauthorization. What an amazing tribute to the bipartisan leadership of Chairman Lamar Alexander and ranking member Patty Murray.

So what happens now? The next stop is the Senate floor, where members of the committee and others will introduce many an amendment—some of which will be plenty controversial, but few of which will muster sixty votes. At that point, we’ll learn whether there are sixty votes to pass the bill as a whole. The unanimous committee vote certainly bodes well, though it’s no guarantee. (I can’t imagine Senator Rand Paul voting for a bill on the Senate floor that doesn’t including Title I portability, for example, but there aren’t the numbers for that. So he’ll vote nay.)

And if the Senate does pass a bill? Then there’s that pesky House of Representatives. That’s where things get interesting. House Republican leaders will face three choices:

First, they can take the Senate bill straight to the House floor and seek to pass it with bipartisan support. They will almost surely lose many liberals and conservatives, but they might squeak out a majority consisting of both Republicans and Democrats. (If they can’t get a majority of Republicans, they will have to break the “Hastert Rule” to pass it, which seems unlikely.)

Second, they can rally their fellow Republicans to pass Education Committee Chairman John Kline’s bill on a party-line vote and then take that to conference.

Third, they can do nothing and allow the Senate bill to die, thus almost certainly dooming ESEA reauthorization until well after the 2016 election.

Option one would be most straightforward, as well as the quickest, surest route to a bill that President Obama would sign. But it would mean embracing a fairly moderate bill (though still one far friendlier to Republican principles of federalism than current law).

Option two is the best way for Republicans to nudge the Senate bill to the right—giving conservatives some leverage in a conference committee. This is the option I prefer. But it carries the risk of a deadlocked conference, a product that the Senate could not (by sixty votes) approve, and/or one that would never make it through the Oval Office.

Option three is the worst, since we desperately need a new ESEA. Yet I can imagine the Pickett’s Charge wing of the GOP (and their do-or-die allies at Heritage Action) demanding it, since neither option one nor option two will result in the complete abdication of the federal role in education. (Of course, neither will sticking with current statute, which is the practical effect of pursuing option three.) Speaker John Boehner will have to decide whether to cross them on this.

That’s how I see it. Then again, I didn’t see a unanimous committee vote coming, so tell me if I’ve got this one wrong, too.

– Mike Petrilli

This first appeared on Flypaper.

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