As Congress raced to sew up the tax-and-budget accord with the White House before the August recess, one issue separated the two sides: education choice. A little-noticed provision would have allowed parents to create tax-free savings accounts for private or religious schooling. At the behest of teachers' unions, the president objected and demanded the provision be removed, setting up a closed-door political face-off. But by the time it was over, GOP leaders were face-down. Bob Jones IV reports on the Republicans' latest cave-in.
The smiles on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue on Tuesday, July 29, were almost as bright as the summer sun that had baked the city for weeks. In front of the White House and on the steps of the Capitol, politicians from both parties gathered to take credit for a tax and budget compromise plan that many pundits described as historic.
The agreement worked out between the White House and congressional conferees was indeed sweeping: a cut in the capital-gains tax, new scholarships for college students, and a $500-per-child tax credit for middle-class families.
But nothing lit up the faces of conservatives in Congress quite like the little-known Coverdell Amendment, which negotiators had kept in the reconciled tax bill over the strenuous but quiet objections of President Clinton. The brainchild of Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.), the amendment provided for tax-free IRAs of up to $2,500 per year that parents could apply to almost any type of educational expenses for their children. Because there were no restrictions against using the tax-sheltered income for Christian and parochial schools, conservatives viewed the Coverdell Amendment as a major breakthrough in the protracted debate over school choice.
But as darkness fell on Washington, so did the spirits of school-choice advocates. At 9 p.m. that Tuesday-some eight hours after he had publicly accepted the Republican tax cut plan-the president called Newt Gingrich with a veto threat: The entire, delicate compromise would be scrapped unless the IRA plan were dropped.
Conservatives immediately mobilized to protect their hard-fought gains. Organizations such as the Family Research Council dispatched lobbyists to the Hill and sent urgent faxes across the country trying to muster support. FRC president Gary Bauer personally called Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott urging him to resist presidential pressure. "But alas," Mr. Bauer reported just hours later, "by this morning [Wednesday] Gingrich and Lott had agreed to the president's demand."
Mr. Bauer got the crux of that charge right, but not the chronology. The Republican leadership did indeed withdraw the Coverdell Amendment without a fight, but the agreement to do so was reached days earlier: the cave-in occurred over the weekend, not early Wednesday morning.
Spokesmen for both Sen. Lott and House Majority Leader Dick Armey admitted to WORLD that the fate of the amendment was a done deal. Rather than hold up the budget agreement, Republican leaders had already promised the president that they would quickly pull the plug on the IRA proposal if he would make his objections publicly. That way, the reasoning went, Republicans could clobber him politically.
Not only did that not happen, but the late-night veto call from President Clinton to Newt Gingrich was every bit as much a farce. The president was simply playing the role assigned to him in advance. Besides the call, Mr. Clinton was also required to publicly issue his written veto threat and to publicly meet with three Senate supporters of the measure. That done, the amendment would be pulled without a fight, and the president wouldn't actually have to exercise the threatened veto.
Why would Republicans participate in such a transparent charade? "We agreed not to jam them on something that we would probably have lost on anyway," explained David Hoppe, Sen. Lott's chief of staff. With only 59 votes, the bill's backers were seven votes short of a veto-proof margin in the Senate, and support in the House was completely untested.
To many conservatives, however, such an approach was a sell-out, not a strategy. "Here was a wonderful opportunity to explain to the American people a very big difference between the conservative vision and the liberal vision about who should be making educational choices for our children," said Mr. Bauer. "It's incomprehensible to me that the leadership would miss this opportunity. The chance of losing was almost nil."
Evidently President Clinton viewed the situation in much the same light. Although the Coverdell Amendment had been his top objection to the Republican tax plan for nearly a week, the issue never registered a blip on the national political radar screen because the president voiced his opposition entirely behind the scenes.
The Family Research Council accused the administration of carrying out a "stealth campaign" to kill the amendment. "The president obviously knew that his special-interest pleadings would wilt if they were exposed to the light of day so he confined his arguments to hidden Washington, D.C., corridors," Mr. Bauer charged.
The biggest unanswered question is, Why would Republicans in Congress cooperate with the president in keeping the veto threat under wraps? They could have publicized the veto in advance, allowing a public backlash and exposing the president's servility to the teachers' unions. Instead, they continued acting as if everything were all right and the amendment was going to become law.
The act was pretty convincing, even to Washington pros. Heidi Stirrup, director of government relations for the Christian Coalition, recalls that "on Monday evening the House majority leader said to me, 'We just shook hands on it. The Coverdell Amendment is going to stay.' We were all very excited. As late as 7:30 [Tuesday] evening, our organization's president was assured that it would stay in there."
Republican leaders insist that they have not missed their best chance at forcing the Clinton Administration to accept school choice. "Were we wrong to agree to withdraw the amendment? Maybe we were, maybe we weren't," says Mr. Hoppe of Sen. Lott's office. "What's important is that Coverdell has now become a major issue and people are talking about who should be in charge of children's education. This is the beginning of Coverdell, not the end."
Indeed, Republicans in both houses of Congress last Friday did reintroduce freestanding bills to allow educational IRAs for children in grades K-12. But the prognosis is shaky at best. Lawmakers will debate the bill knowing of President Clinton plans to veto, a fact that was unclear the first time around. Also, opponents are now free to block the legislation through filibusters and other procedural ploys. Finally, if a bill does actually reach the president's desk, he can veto it much more easily knowing that it's not attached to a balanced budget agreement of "historic proportions."
Although congressional leaders continue to talk about an all-out fight for educational IRAs, conservative critics promise they won't soon forget the sellout of the Coverdell Amendment.
"This is just one more straw on the camel's back," Mr. Bauer says. "It's one more sign of the building tension between conservatives outside the beltway and those who are supposed to speak for them inside the beltway. This will feed into the frustration that will be played out in the Republican presidential primaries in 2000. We're going to remember that on this very important issue, a lot of people didn't rally to the flag."