Legislative Update: June 7, 2006

HIGHER EDUCATION ACT REAUTHORIZATION

As Congress moves through its agendas and the appropriation bills, it has become less likely that the Senate will bring the Higher Education Act reauthorization up for a vote this summer. However, there is a scheduled "Education Week" for the last week of June, and staff are giving a flicker of hope that the Higher Education Act may make it on the Senate calendar during that week. The extension filed early this year extended the bill until June 29. If it does not make it to a floor vote by that date, it will have to be extended again.

As we have shared before, if for some reason, it is not passed before Congress adjourns after the November elections, then the entire bill would be redrafted and have to be passed again in the House as next January starts a new session of Congress. Many in the higher education community and some Congressional staff are not pushing for it to be brought to a vote at this point because with the student loan provisions covered in the budget bill, the provisions in the yet-to-pass bill are not welcomed provisions which are seen as making positive changes in higher ed law.

IMMIGRATION

On Thursday, the Senate passed its controversial immigration bill, which covers border security, a guest worker program, and path to citizenship. The challenge will be working with the House to conference their very different bills. The House bill is strictly a border security bill. The White House is working to try to push conservative House members to support the Senate bill through conference.

The Senate bill will allow families to remain together in the states. As you are aware, many students were born in the United States but family members do not have citizenship. There is a strong commitment to complete this bill and have it signed into law in June.

The provisions that were included in the Senate version that directly affect higher education include measures that would create a new visa category for foreign science and engineering students, allowing them to work in the United States upon graduation; increase the cap on H-1B visas (from 65,000 to 115,000 per year); raise the employment-based visa cap; and exempt certain workers with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, or math from both H-1B and employment-based visa caps.

Of significant note, the Senate legislation incorporates the DREAM Act, which would allow immigrants who entered the United States before they turned 16 and have been living here at least five years to be granted conditional legal residency. Residency could become permanent if they graduate from a two-year degree program, complete two years of a bachelor's or graduate degree program, or serve in the armed forces for two years. The inclusion of the DREAM Act is a large step forward as it had not been included in previous bills affecting immigration.

APPROPRIATION ROUND-UP

Supplemental Appropriations Act to include single-holder rule

Rep. Ralph Regula offered a provision in the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Bill during the final stages of the conference that will repeal of the single-holder rule, which will allow borrowers the option to shop around for competitive interest rates and better repayment terms for their consolidation loans. An effective date for the repeal of the single holder rule has not been formally introduced; however, it is believed to be the date of enactment. The Supplemental Bill covers spending for Iraq as well as over $5 billion in aid for Katrina victims and $2.8 billion for Avian Influenza.

House Education and the Workforce Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon dropped his bid to increase Direct PLUS loan interest rates to 8.3 percent to match those of private loans after House Democrats claimed the amendment would act as "another raid" on student aid. Rep. George Miller and Rep. Dale Kildee wrote to colleagues on June 6, stating the interest rate fix would cost parents in the Direct Loan program an additional $365 million over the next five years. Kildee and Miller released a statement noting that "After taking $12 billion from the student aid program, Republicans in Congress are headed back to finish their handy work. … Republicans should pay for their ‘mistake,’ not working families struggling to help their children attend college."

The conference committee working on the final Emergency Supplemental Bill is still working out non-related issues yet expect to complete this week before Congress recesses for the weekend.

House Labor, HHS, Education Appropriations Bill increases Pell Award by $100

The House has completed the markup for the fiscal year 2007 Labor, Health, and Human Services and Education Appropriations Bill. It does include a Pell Grant Award increase of $100 to $4,150. This is the largest single increase in over five years and the highest the award amount in the history of the program. The bill’s $141.93 billion budget, which exceeds President Bush’s request by $4.136 billion, also earmarks $47 million for scholarships to disadvantaged students, $37 million above the president’s request.

Congressional calendar

Congress was in recess the week of May 30, returned for work for the month of June, will recess for the July 4 holiday, and then reconvene for 2.5 weeks in July before the August recess. The number of weeks for completion of business before August is only six weeks. Congress will return after Labor Day for approximately three weeks before the October recess and the November mid-term elections. Majority Leader Boehner has already gone on record stating the House of Representatives will return after the November elections and most likely be in session until Christmas, mainly due to moving through spending packages. The Senate has not indicated the same schedule although it cannot move on spending packages until the House has completed their work.

All of this information is to reflect the relatively short amount of time given to complete all appropriations bills, complete a number of reauthorization bills (including the Higher Education Act), and complete conferences on passed bills.