Lawmakers returned to Washington this week post-election with a number of pressing items on the legislative agenda.
The outcome of the presidential and congressional elections will undoubtedly affect negotiations over a potential supplemental coronavirus stimulus bill during the lame-duck session, Politico reported. The higher education community has been warning Congress since this spring that students and institutions need more resources to tackle the pandemic. Additionally, the current moratorium on emergency student loan relief granted in March under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act expires on December 31. The provision, created in the CARES Act and extended by executive action, waives all interest on student loans held by the federal government and allows borrowers to suspend payments. Either Congress or the Trump administration will need to act to once again extend that relief in the next month or else let it lapse as borrowers continue to struggle amid the pandemic. Democrats and Republicans largely agree that students need support and colleges and universities need tens of billions of dollars in federal relief, but continue to quarrel over the details of an additional stimulus aid package.
Lawmakers also face the looming December 11 expiration of government funding and need to reach a deal on fiscal year 2021 appropriations by that deadline to avoid a shutdown. Both House and Senate leaders have said they want to negotiate a massive spending deal by mid-December that would boost federal agency budgets for the remainder of fiscal 2021, which began October 1. However, securing bipartisan, bicameral agreement on a slate of appropriations bills in a lame-duck session of Congress will be an enormous lift for lawmakers, reported Politico.
Senate appropriators on Tuesday unveiled their bill to fund the Education Department for the 2021 fiscal year, proposing a less than 1 percent boost for education spending. The Labor-HHS-Education measure would provide $73.2 billion in discretionary funding for the Education Department, a $433 million increase over current levels. The Senate GOP proposal comes in below the $73.5 billion House Democrats passed earlier this year in a six-bill appropriations minibus. Both the Senate and House bills would increase the maximum Pell grant award by $150 to $6,495.
The House-passed education funding bill includes policy language that would amend the 90-10 rule—tightening the maximum share of revenue for-profit institutions can take in from federal sources at 85 percent and counting military education benefits as federal revenue—and block Education Secretary Betsy DeVos from carrying out her new Title IX regulations governing sexual misconduct in schools and colleges. The proposed provisions are nonstarters in the Republican Senate.
Although lawmakers will need to reach a deal on all 11 of the FY 2021 spending bills, Senate appropriators do not plan to mark up the measure proposed on Tuesday. Instead, they are expected to dive into negotiations with the House over an omnibus appropriations deal to avert a government shutdown when stopgap funding expires in mid-December, Politico reported.
Finally, with the retirement of long-time Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the upper chamber could prompt renewed discussion of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA) before the end of the year—or a bill to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)—during the lame-duck session, reported Inside Higher Ed. Alexander, a proponent of simplification, is hoping to at least advance a final standalone measure to reduce the number of questions on the form and end the Education Department's lengthy verification process. The Republican committee members to potentially take helm of the committee will not have as great an interest in higher education issues as Alexander, Inside Higher Ed reported. Therefore, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the HELP committee, will need to decide whether to cut a deal with Sen. Alexander on HEA or wait in the hopes that Democrats will control the Senate next year in the runoff Georgia elections—scheduled two days after Alexander retires.
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