Liberal House Dems, unions push for $23B fund to save teacher jobs

Soon after Congress returns from its Memorial Day recess, liberal House Democrats and teachers unions will make one last push to pass a $23 billion fund to prevent teacher layoffs.

Democrats are looking to package the fund with war and disaster spending in a supplemental appropriations bill the House will vote on as early as this week.

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The House approved the teacher fund in December as part of a jobs bill, but that legislation stalled in the Senate. With lawmakers wary of moving big spending measures, the upcoming bill may be the last vehicle that could carry the teacher money before the November elections.

Democrats in the House pushing for the fiscal aid warn that up to 300,000 teachers could lose their jobs because the $44.5 billion in fiscal aid in the 2009 stimulus bill is running out.

"At the same time, states are still facing bleak budgetary outlooks and may very well have to cut funding for education in order to balance budgets," Democratic Reps. Maurice Hinchey (N.Y.), Phil Hare (Ill.) and Bob Etheridge (N.C.) wrote in a letter. "If Congress does not pass additional funding for education jobs soon, many of the jobs that have been supported by [the stimulus] will be lost."

The letter was signed by 104 other House Democrats, the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association unions, and other public education groups. The teacher fund has gotten public backing from Education Secretary Arne Duncan and senior White House economist Christina Romer.

The measure is likely to run into resistance from Democratic freshman and fiscally conservative Blue Dogs, both of whom face tough reelection races this fall.

House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) is including the teacher money in an $86 billion package that also has $37.5 billion for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and related State Department operations; $13.4 billion for Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange; $5.7 billion for Pell Grants for college students; $2.8 billion for Haiti aid; $677 million for increased security at the Mexican border; and $275 million for aid for the Gulf Coast oil spill. Most of the money isn't offset and would increase the deficit because it's considered emergency spending.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (Va.), a freshman Democrat, said Congress will be more mindful of additional deficit spending than they were when the recession was in full swing.

"Moving forward, what worked a year ago is not going to work now," Connolly said. "There is going to be a fiscal standard that is frankly much more rigorous than it was a year ago, and, by the way, correctly so. A year ago we were still struggling to get out of the recession. Today we are now managing a recovery and trying to sustain it."

This year's budget shortfall is expected to be about $1.5 trillion, which would be a record in terms of nominal dollars. Deficits would average almost $1 trillion for the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Just before the recess, freshmen lawmakers and Blue Dogs blanched at voting for a nearly $200 billion measure that would have extended expiring jobless benefits and business tax provisions because it would have added more than $130 billion to the deficit. House leaders found enough votes for the package only after lopping off about $50 billion in spending.

"I would think that a lot of members would like to see these priorities paid for," a Blue Dog aide said.