Senate Education Rewrite Halted Abruptly by Angry Senator

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A Senate committee’s markup of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was stopped abruptly early this afternoon when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), angry at the lack of time leaders allowed for members to study the 800-plus page bill, used a procedural motion to end the meeting.

Soon afterward, the battle over whether the meeting could proceed moved to the Senate floor with committee leaders defending the openness of their work on the bill over the past two years and criticizing Paul and others for not attempting to participate in the process.

As of this afternoon, the committee meeting was still halted.

The day’s drama began at a markup hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee of a new version of No Child Left Behind that has been agreed to by  Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Ranking Member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.). A little before noon, the committee had considered two of 144 pending amendments before Paul objected to the committee meeting for more than two hours while the Senate was in session. The Senate went into session this morning at 9:30 a.m.; the committee markup began a half hour later.

The rule limiting committee sessions during a full Senate session is waived nearly every day for one committee or another, according to committee spokeswoman Justine Sessions, but it only requires one senator's objection to invoke the rule and halt proceedings after two hours.

Harkin announced that Paul had objected in writing and told committee members and about 120 members of the public who had crammed the hearing room that he intended to reconvene the committee markup after the Senate’s final business of the day. Then Harkins angrily gaveled the meeting to a close and walked off briskly.

The Senate schedule calls for it to be in session until 8 tonight.

Earlier in the meeting, Paul and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) both objected to the lack of time Harkin and Enzi had given members to prepare to mark up the 860-page bill.

Although a draft of the bill was released last Tuesday, Burr said he received the bill on Friday, the same day the final bill was released to the public, and that “there was no consultation with me. I think that was on purpose.”

Paul, who took office in January of 2011, later bemoaned the lack of hearings on reauthorization before the bill was introduced last week. “Last year, the committee held 10 hearings” on reauthorization, Harkin countered. 

After an amendment by Burr failed and one submitted by Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) passed, the committee turned to an amendment by Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) that would have required individual assessments for each student who required an Independent Education Plan. The amendment was widely opposed by groups and associations representing the disabled and special needs children.

During debate on the amendment, Paul’s objection took effect.

A statement from a Harkin spokesperson released just after the meeting was stopped said, “Senator Paul, who fervently urged early in this markup that we replace No Child Left Behind, is now procedurally obstructing the committee he sits on from acting in a bipartisan way to replace No Child Left Behind. Paul has filed 74 amendments, more than half of those filed. Chairman Harkin is prepared to have every Paul amendment considered and voted on, but we can't do that if we're blocked from meeting.”

The debate over Paul’s objection then moved to the full Senate, where Harkin sought unanimous consent to continue the meeting. Paul, who never had to speak in the meeting about the objection, did so on the Senate floor.

“There are 868 pages, when are we going to read it? After it passes,” Paul said. “Nobody asked me about this bill, the same with most of people on the committee.”

He suggested again that the committee should hold hearings to gather comments and ideas from school leaders before proceeding with reauthorization.

“This process is rotten from the top to the bottom,” Paul said. “This is what’s wrong with Washington.”

“The Senate is a continuing body,” Harkin said in response. “So every two years we’ve got to start all over from scratch every time? The senator from Kentucky had every day since sworn in to come to me or Sen. Enzi and say, ‘I’m on the committee, here’s what I’d like in the bill’. Other senators did that. Our doors were open, there was no secret we were meeting.”

“Finally, after two years of work, we’re going to stop because a two-hour meeting is too long?” said an emotional Bennet, who was superintendent of Denver Public Schools before being appointed to Congress in 2009 to replace Ken Salazar when he joined the Obama administration as Secretary of the Interior.

Burr said on the floor that he had heard the committee bill was a done deal, and that Harkin and Enzi would protect it from anything other than minor amendment.

The bill supported by Harkin and Enzi would remove the Adequate Yearly Progress reports introduced under the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act, and many of the required penalties imposed on schools that did not meet the AYP standards. It would focus federal accountability standards on the five percent of schools performing the worst.

The bill “aims for a federal role that does fewer things, but does them more effectively,” Harkin said in his opening statement.

A group of organizations – including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Council of La Raza and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – opposed the Harkin-Enzi bill because it lacks any requirement for states to measure the performance of most schools.

“In its current form,” said a statement from the group, “states would not have to set any measurable achievement and progress targets or even graduation rate goals. They would be required to take action to improve only a small number of low-performing schools. In schools which aren’t among the states’ very worst performing, huge numbers of low-achieving students will slip through the cracks.”

Committee leadership are pushing the reauthorization process now in part because of the Obama administration’s recent decision to permit states to seek waivers from some provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, on the condition that they accept certain academic standards aimed at college and career readiness.

In light of the fact that 37 states have asked for waivers since Obama offered them, Paul said, “we should throw the whole thing out and start again.”

Harkin, responding to Paul’s comment, said the impetus for the mark up and movement of reauthorization was “trying to forestall the waivers.”

Update: The committee will continue its markup of the bill tomorrow at 8 a.m. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nevada), wrapping up today's floor session at 9:30 p.m., successfully moved to open tomorrow's session at 10 a.m. to buy more time for the HELP Committee should Paul continue to object.

Note: This story was corrected to reflect more accurate information about the procedural objection used by Sen. Paul and attribution of a statement released after the meeting stopped.