No matter who wins the congressional and presidential elections next month, lawmakers will return to Washington in November to sort out a tangle of tricky budgetary issues--and will face a legislative logjam that includes almost every major law that touches on education.
Fiscal concerns are almost certain to take center stage, both during a lame-duck session to be held right after the election, and come January, after the new Congress is sworn in. In addition to figuring out how--and whether--to head off "sequestration," a series of planned, across-the-board cuts, which the White House Office of Management and Budget projects says would mean an 8.2 percent reduction to most programs in the U.S. Department of Education, lawmakers must make big decisions about a whole host of other long-term budget and tax issues.
The debate over those thorny questions is likely to consume the bulk of lawmakers' energy, and some observers say that could push the long-delayed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to the back burner for a year or more.
"If everything is the same going into next year, with control of the House, Senate, and the White House, we're in for a long, drawn-out year of what tax cuts do we reinstate, what parts of the sequester happen or don't happen," said Jason Delisle, a former aide to Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee, who now serves as the director of the federal education budget project at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington. "We've been in this mess for a year now, and if we wake up after the election and nothing has changed," he said, it's going to become clear to lawmakers that "there's no easy way out."
Handicapping the Split
For now, it appears that the makeup of Congress is likely to stay relatively constant. Political prognosticators see little chance that Democrats will take over the U.S. House of Representatives, which flipped to Republican control in 2010.
As for the Senate, the chamber includes 51 Democrats and 47 Republicans, plus two Independents who caucus with the Democrats.
Earlier on in the election cycle, it seemed possible that the GOP could gain control of the U.S. Senate, but a Republican takeover now looks increasingly unlikely, according to a Sept. 27 analysis of polling data by the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. While the center's director, Larry J. Sabato, identified six races as toss-ups--in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Indiana, Nevada, North Dakota, and Wisconsin--he and other political experts are expecting that the chamber will remain in Democratic hands, unless there is a significant shift in the political climate between now and Election Day.
If that prognosis is right--and if President Barack Obama is able to hold on to the White House--that would leave the current political landscape virtually unchanged. So far, the combination of a GOP-held House, Democratic Senate, and Democratic White House has added up to protracted gridlock on a host of budget and policy fronts.
Higher Ed. Headaches
However, the focus on budget is likely to mean that college-access issues will get some significant airtime in the new Congress. For example, the federally subsidized student lending program is one of a number of so-called mandatory spending programs that lawmakers may be looking to trim or change as they deal with deficit spending.
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