A bill creating tax-free savings accounts for school expenses became a showcase for sharp partisan divisions on its way to narrow Senate passage.
Just a handful of Democrats and Republicans broke ranks on the final 56-43 vote Thursday, and it came only after days of wrangling during which both sides sought to stake out positions likely to play a role in the fall midterm congressional elections.The Senate bill, which must be reconciled with a House-passed version, also evoked a White House veto threat even before Republicans added amendments opposing new federal math and reading tests for students and ending the Education Department's control of some school spending programs.
Republicans said they simply were returning as much power as possible to states, school boards and parents and shaking up a system that lets student achievement fall while enriching bureaucrats.
"What we have here is a choice between the status quo and people who want to empower parents to have more of a role in the education of their children," said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H.
Supporters had promoted the savings bill as a modest way to help working and poor families meet school expenses and if necessary find alternatives to dangerous or substandard public schools. Opponents, including teachers' unions, described it as a vehicle for tax breaks to help affluent parents send children to private schools.
"What this means is the death of public education," said Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
Before the vote, conservative Republicans added an amendment effectively blocking Clinton's proposed new federal tests to measure individual math and reading achievement. An amendment converting some federal school programs to grants also was approved.
Republicans rejected Clinton administration proposals to use federal dollars to reduce class sizes by subsidizing school construction, to forgive student loans for new teachers in poor areas and to create new after-school programs.
Clinton said the bill "weakens our commitment to making America's schools the best they can be in the 21st century."
Some of the bill's would-be Democratic supporters and some Republicans were driven away by the anti-testing amendment and the shift of some power away from the Education Department.
But others voted for the bill in hopes that the House and Senate negotiators would modify it when they reconcile their separate versions.
"There is a sufficient amount of good in this bill," said Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla.
The vote was along party lines for the most part. Among Republicans, only Sens. John Chafee of Rhode Island, James Jeffords of Vermont and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania opposed it.
Four Democrats other than Graham supported it: Sens. John Breaux of Louisiana, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Robert Torricelli of New Jersey. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., did not vote.
The savings bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., and Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., would allow tax-free savings accounts to be created for children, starting at birth. Up to $2,000 a year could be contributed, with money coming from relatives, employers, foundations or other sources.
The interest and withdrawals would be tax-free, and the money could be used for a range of expenses from kindergarten through college, including tuition at private or religious schools. The bill is estimated to cost $1.6 billion over 10 years.
In addition to creating the accounts, the bill would expand popular exemptions for employer-provided educational assistance, make savings for state prepaid tuition plans tax free and offer some aid for school construction, though far less than what Clinton wanted.