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The bipartisan effort to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act hit a major speed bump Wednesday when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) shut down a markup of the bill after complaining that it was being rushed through.
Paul, who opposes No Child Left Behind and has proposed abolishing the Department of Education, complained the bill was being railroaded through the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee with no public hearings or time to read the bill.
Paul objected to continuing the markup for longer than two hours — Senate rules require unanimous consent for the committee to meet longer than two hours.
"I find it a tragedy that we are operating here in the Senate by introducing an 868-page bill with 48 hours to read it, approximately 1,000 pages worth of amendments to this bill with virtually no time to read or think about the amendments," he said, adding, "I think it's precisely what's wrong with this body."
The bipartisan deal reached by Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) after months of negotiating has the potential for a rare bout of legislating in a gridlocked Congress. The 2001 act, considered one of the landmark achievements of President George W. Bush, created a series of national standards for student achievement that have been extremely controversial and difficult for school districts to meet. Harkin and Enzi are working on a bill that would streamline the mandates the No Child Left Behind legislation created for school districts.
But Paul complained there have been no hearings on the bill this year.
"As I go around my state and I talk to teachers, I've yet to meet one teacher who's in favor of No Child Left Behind. They abhor it. They hate all the stuff we are telling them what to do from Washington," he said.
"I feel pushed aside. ... All I am asking for is a hearing to listen to teachers. Should we not listen to the teachers? A hearing to listen to the superintendents. A hearing to listen to the principals. Let them read the bill and find out what's in the bill."
Paul said Harkin and Enzi didn't consult with him on the bill, either. "Who's been involved in crafting this legislation? I'm on the committee. Nobody asked me, nobody consulted with me, and I think that's the same with most of the people on the committee."
Paul's comments irked Harkin, who said the committee had 10 hearings on the bill last year.
"Now, I'm sorry the Senator wasn't here last year, but the Senate is a continuing body. Does that mean that every two years we have to start all over from scratch every time?"
Harkin said Paul could have spoken to him or Enzi if he wanted to have input on the bill at any point this year — it wasn't a secret they were working on it — and he never spoke to Harkin about it.
Harkin also said the bill wasn't filed 48 hours ago, but was available online for a whole week. Only the manager's amendment was filed on Monday.
Harkin said Paul has filed 74 of the 144 amendments filed on the bill. "How can you file 74 amendments if you haven't read the bill?" Harkin asked.
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), a former schools superintendent, urged Paul to reconsider.
"I think if you ask yourself why is it that we have a 12 percent approval rating that's going down, it's because of this kind of thing," he said.
Bennet, who also alluded to his efforts to streamline Senate rules earlier this year, later said there have already been years of delay.
"Congress was supposed to reauthorize this bill in 2007. It's four years later because of our own fecklessness, our own inability to get anything done. ... Every single year, parents, teachers and principals keep having to put up with what is the crudest accountability system I could imagine."
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who is vying to be the party's Whip in the next Congress, came to Paul's defense on the Senate floor.
Burr dismissed Harkin's statement that Senators would have another shot at amending the bill on the floor, saying that didn't give him much comfort given the Democrats' propensity for blocking all amendments.
He also took issue with the underlying bill, saying that it is still overly prescriptive of what local school boards must do to receive federal money.
"This bill spends 20 pages defining for every local school system what reading is," he said. "This is insane."
Burr suggested that Harkin hold a hearing after next week's recess before returning to a markup.
Burr also said he was told that Harkin and Enzi had reached a deal not to let substantive amendments pass.
"There were going to be no exceptions," he complained.
Burr said in an interview that a deal like that "should trouble not just me, but Republicans and Democrats and the American people."