WASHINGTON - Facing opposition from Democrats and factions within their own party, House Republican leaders just barely pushed through last night an overhaul of Head Start that would accomplish President Bush's goal of shifting some control of the low-income preschool program to the states.
By a vote of 217-216, the House passed the measure, which would allow a five-year experiment in which eight states could use federal Head Start funds for their preschool programs - a privilege that Bush wants to give to every state.
The states that will participate in the pilot project are not designated in the measure, but must apply.
Democrats and Head Start directors oppose the measure, arguing that it would begin destroying the popular Great Society program. Many Republicans say the measure makes changes that are desperately needed to raise the program's quality and give its pre-schoolers some of the advantages that children in wealthier families enjoy.
The Republicans came to the floor armed with statistics that show Head Start children lagging behind their peers in cognitive development, saying the measure would "close the readiness gap" between low-income kids and others.
"Children in Head Start deserve the same shot at a good education as every other child in America," said Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee. "We can do better and we must do better."
Democrats countered with an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" argument.
"For the first time in history, we have a partisan attack on Head Start," said Rep. George Miller of California, the education panel's senior Democrat. "We've had a national consensus, because this is the best program we have in the nation, with the best results."
House members were working late into the night in anticipation of their 5 1/2 -week summer break, which begins Monday. Also on tap last night was a vote on a controversial measure to allow the reimportation of prescription drugs that can be purchased more cheaply in other countries - a key issue in House-Senate negotiations over legislation to revamp Medicare.
Passage of the Head Start bill moves the fight to the closely divided Senate, where it is expected to face tougher obstacles in both parties.
Even in the House, where Republicans enjoy a larger majority, leaders had to work into the evening to find the votes to pass the measure, which would shift the 38-year-old program's traditional emphasis on health and nutrition services toward school preparation.
Like Democrats, some moderate Republicans were reluctant to overhaul the highly regarded program, while conservatives were eager for major changes and strict limits on funding.
To round up the GOP votes needed to pass the measure, its sponsor, Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Delaware Republican, tightened eligibility requirements for states to qualify for the test project. He also extended, from three to five years, the period during which participating states would have to guarantee funding for all of their Head Start centers.
Still, a coalition of Head Start directors and children's advocacy groups that has lobbied forcefully against the measure said the proposed changes were insufficient and predicted that the bill "has no prospects for success in the U.S. Senate, even if it manages to squeak by in the House."
"The whole notion of block granting the Head Start program by turning it over to all or certain states is a total nonstarter among many U.S. House members and a majority of the members of the U.S. Senate," the advocacy groups, led by the National Head Start Association, said in a statement.
Block grants are funds sent to the states with few if any strings attached.
House leaders also bowed to the conservatives' insistence that the bill limit future Head Start funding increases. At a late-night meeting Wednesday of the Rules Committee, which dictates procedures for debating legislation on the House floor, Republicans moved to hold down funding for the program from 2005 to 2008.
The original measure would have allowed "such sums as are necessary" to be spent on the early childhood development program in those years, but the revised version set out specific amounts.
"We weren't willing to go along without any progress on fiscal restraint in the program," said Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican.
The $203 million increase for Head Start next year, which would bring the program to $6.9 billion, would remain intact.
The last-minute changes further enraged Democrats, who argued that the funding caps would shut out poor children from Head Start services in the future. They painted the measure as part of a series of assaults Republicans were making on the nation's children, including the decision this year to leave some low-income parents out of the tax-cut bill.
"You Republicans really know how to kick a kid when he's down. First the child tax credit, now this," said Rep. Alcee L. Hastings of Florida, the senior Democrat on the Rules Committee. "Maybe there's a Republican bill out there that outlaws kickball."
But many GOP lawmakers, echoing the theme of Bush's oft-repeated admonition against "the soft bigotry of low expectations," said it was Democrats who were doing children a disservice by refusing to change an outdated program.
"We're talking about mediocrity, and perpetuating mediocrity among our neediest students," said Rep. John L. Mica, a Florida Republican. "These children deserve a head start. That was what the program was all about."
Democrats also objected to language in the measure that would allow faith-based organizations that run Head Start programs to hire on the basis of religious preferences. The provision is similar to one that Republicans, with backing from the Bush administration, have pushed to include in several other bills, including legislation to encourage charitable giving and to renew the national service network AmeriCorps.
"No American citizen should have to pass somebody else's religious test to qualify for a job," said Rep. Chet Edwards, a Texas Democrat. "For any American citizen to have to choose between their job and their religious beliefs makes a mockery" of the Constitution.
The House rejected, 231-199, an attempt by Democrats, including Montgomery County Rep. Chris Van Hollen, to remove the religious hiring language.
Also rejected, by a 229-200 vote, was a Democratic alternative offered by Miller that would have removed both the religious hiring provision and the eight-state experiment.