WASHINGTON — A Senate committee debate on a bipartisan bill to overhaul a key education law came to an abrupt halt Wednesday after Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., invoked a little-used procedural rule that forced a temporary adjournment.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, who had worked for more than a year with the ranking Republican, Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., to revamp the No Child Left Behind law, was visibly irritated. He said the panel would reconvene Wednesday night after the Senate finished its daily business, and then continue discussions early Thursday morning.
"We can start early, we can stay late," he said. "We will complete work on this bill."
The Senate rule, which can be used by any senator, says no committee can meet without unanimous consent once the Senate has been in session for two hours. The rule originated when there were few states and it was important for lawmakers to spend time on the Senate floor. But with the Senate's growth, the rule has been rarely invoked.
Paul, who offered 74 of the 144 amendments that have been proposed for the Harkin-Enzi bill, told the Senate that the bill was being rushed.
"This process is rotten from the top to the bottom," Paul said. "I would ask that we have a hearing; let's find out what we think of No Child Left Behind before we rush through a 868-page bill that no one has time to read. This is what's wrong with Washington."
Harkin rebutted Paul, noting that the committee held 10 hearings last year, and he gently lectured him.
"We had hearings with superintendents, teachers, principals, broad input from across America," Harkin said. "Does that mean every two years we have to start from scratch every time? The senator from Kentucky had every day since he was sworn in in January to come to me or Senator Enzi and say, 'Here's what I'd like to have in the bill.' Other senators did that. Our doors are open. It was no secret that we were meeting. ... If the senator filed 74 amendments but is objecting to our meeting to even consider his amendments, can please someone explain the logic of that?"
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., a former Denver school superintendent, urged Paul to drop his objections.
"The senator speaks of the tragedy of this process," Bennet said. "I'll tell you the real tragedy. The real tragedy is that only nine of 100 children living in poverty can expect to graduate from college. A tragedy is that there are people working at our schools right now doing the best they can to serve our kids and we think a two-hour meeting is too long."
No Child Left Behind, enacted in 2002, is widely seen as outdated, and it was due for a congressional overhaul four years ago.
Last month, President Barack Obama said he was so frustrated by congressional inaction that he would direct Education Secretary Arne Duncan to waive the requirements of the law for states that embrace education policies favored by the White House. At least 39 states, including Kentucky, intend to apply for a waiver.
Harkin, Enzi, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and others in the Senate want to pass a bill by the end of the year before the waivers are issued.