House Republicans squeaked a contentious education bill through to passage Wednesday despite conservatives' objections that it does not do enough to minimize the role of the federal government in state educational systems.
The narrow House passage of the Student Success Act, which advanced 218-213, marks a long-awaited turnaround for the bill almost six months after it was embarrassingly pulled from floor consideration when members and outside groups balked.
The House vote marks a major step toward a House-Senate conference committee that could send a bill to President Obama this year. It would be the first time such legislation has been enacted since 2001.
The Senate is debating its own version of the bill, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday that he expects final passage to occur early next week.
The House bill is to the right of the Senate bill, but the Senate's chief sponsor of the legislation said the two versions overlap enough to make for a workable middle ground. "Fundamentally, the structures of the bills aren't too different, and I've stayed in touch with [House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John] Kline, and I think we can have a successful conference," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
But to get to that point in the House, GOP leaders had to navigate the concerns of far-right conservatives, which was no small feat. Democrats opposed the measure, which meant GOP leaders had to rely solely on their own caucus. The opponents of the bill were pushing for an amendment, dubbed "A-Plus," to distribute federal education funding in block grants to states that seek them, with almost no federal oversight.
That amendment, offered by Rep. Mark Walker, was not made in order months ago. But to bring conservatives on board, leadership allowed the amendment to come to a vote on Wednesday. Leaders and Chairman Kline opposed it, and it failed 195-235.
Still, many conservatives saw the very fact that leadership allowed the vote as a show of good faith. Outside groups that had previously urged members to vote against the bill withdrew their objections.
Walker himself supported the bill without the amendment, as did other conservatives, which allowed leaders to push the bill across the finish line.
Though Kline did not support the Walker amendment, he did put his support behind two amendments aimed at bringing conservatives onboard—one that would allow parents to opt out of federal testing requirements and another that would shorten the length of the bill's authorization. A third, which allows parents to opt out of Common Core standards, also passed.
Leadership sources noted that passing those amendments put some conservatives at ease.
The new amendments to the House bill put Kline and other House Republicans in a slightly better bargaining position when it comes time to merge their measure with the Senate version. While Alexander doesn't see much difference between the two, Democrats say the House bill is unacceptable because it is too hands-off, and President Obama has threatened to veto it.
That means House negotiators will eventually have to sacrifice some of the most conservative language in their bill in order to draft something that will make it through the Senate and be signable by the president. Senate Democrats believe they can block a conference report with as few as 35 votes because they know that at least half a dozen Senate Republicans won't vote for an education bill under any circumstances. It takes only 41 votes to block final passage in the Senate.
Alexander isn't about to let that happen. "Our goal is to present the president with a bill that he's comfortable signing," he said. "I know there are some things about the direction we're going he doesn't like. But Senator [Patty] Murray and I have talked to him about it, and we've tried to listen and see what we can do to make it a bill we can sign."
The Senate will face some critical votes in the coming days on how money is allocated to poor school districts and how achievement is measured among disadvantaged subgroups. But Senate Republicans and Democrats alike see a clear path toward final passage of their bill. All these votes on amendments that tug the package to the left or to the right are, in actuality, simple preparation for a conference committee.
This article has been updated.