House Republicans rallied around outgoing Speaker John A. Boehner Wednesday evening to approve one of his pet projects: a school voucher program for the District of Columbia.
The House approved reauthorizing the program, known as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, by a mostly party-line vote of 240–191.
Before the vote, Boehner took to the floor to make a rare speech, his voice breaking as he discussed the children who benefited from the program.
“Yes, this issue is personal to me and has been for along time, but frankly it ought to be personal to every single member of this body,” Boehner said. “We owe these kids a chance, a fighting chance, for success.”
Eight Republicans voted against Boehner’s bill, including veteran appropriator Mike Simpson of Idaho. The District’s representative in Congress, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., sat as members voted, as she does not have voting privileges on the House floor. Democrats whipped against the bill, and had two defections: Reps. Daniel Lipinski of Illinois, who co-sponsored the bill, and John Delaney of Maryland.
The bill, known as the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results or SOAR Act, would reauthorize the program for five years. And though funding is authorized through fiscal 2016, the House has moved quickly on the bill, voting on the legislation just more than two weeks after it was introduced.
Norton, who opposes reauthorizing the program, alleged at a markup the House was moving quickly on the bill so Boehner, who is set to retire at the end of October, has “a capstone on his political career.”
But House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said that was not the case, and said the committee always intended to bring up the bill this fall.
Chaffetz said Tuesday night he had not had conversations about the bill with Boehner, but discussed it with his staff. He pointed out that he mentioned his plans to bring up the bill when he made his bid to chair the Oversight panel last fall.
“When I made my presentation to the steering committee about bills we needed to pass out, this was on the top of this list,” Chaffetz said.
But Boehner’s impact was evident, as Republicans who spoke in support of the bill thanked the Ohio Republican for his work.
Boehner worked to establish the program while he was chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee in 2003, and pushed to reauthorize the program in 2011. In a Tuesday statement touting the push for school choice, the speaker’s team noted this cause “may well be nearest and dearest to his heart.”
In other words: For Boehner, this is personal.
“There’s no question in my mind this program matters deeply to him,” former Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., said in a Tuesday phone interview. Lieberman recalled sitting around the dinner table with Boehner and their wives, talking about their families, and said it was clear Boehner’s Catholic education helped give him the tools to succeed.
Lieberman worked closely with Boehner to revive the program in 2011, which was eventually incorporated into a government spending bill.
“Working with the speaker on the D.C. opportunity scholarships was really one of the most exciting experiences of my 24 years in the Senate, because we were trying to bring about a change to something that did not yet have broad bipartisan support,” Lieberman said. “When he became speaker, it became a lot easier to get it done because of his, what I would say, principled, persistent, maybe even stubborn support of the idea”
But now that Boehner is leaving office, Lieberman said the loss of the program’s influential advocate is “of real concern.”
“It will take either John’s successor as speaker or perhaps Republican leadership in the Senate to make this as much as a personal priority as Speaker Boehner did,” Lieberman said.
But Chaffetz disagreed, arguing that Boehner’s exit should not endanger the program’s future.
“The bill should stand on its own merit, but it has worked,” Chaffetz said. “It’s produced results and consequently I think it should pass with flying colors.”
A similar bill was recently introduced in the Senate, and its sponsor, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said Tuesday he has been talking with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s staff about a way forward.
Aside from moving on the floor, reauthorization could be folded into a long-term government spending package, as it was in 2003 and 2011.
“Well I wouldn’t rule anything out, honestly,” Scott said when asked about that possibility.
Boehner has pushed the White House to fund the program in past budget negotiations, according to Lieberman. On Tuesday, the White House issued a statement saying President Barack Obama strongly opposed the bill, but stopped short of issuing a veto threat.
Should the program continue, it would allow for new students to enroll in the voucher program, and allocate $60 million of federal funds, with one-third directed at the scholarship program, one-third directed at D.C. charter schools and one-third directed at D.C. public schools.
Democrats argued funds should be directed solely at public schools, and also pointed to opposition from the majority of D.C. councilmembers.
It is not clear whether D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser supports reauthorization. Her spokesman Michael Czin did not respond to multiple requests for comment, though he did recently tell The Washington Post, “We support federal funding that benefits District residents. The District has been a model for education reform, and the mayor is committed to building on our successes.”
The District government touted improved graduation rates this week, announcing the rate increased to more than 64 percent. But proponents of the voucher program cite a graduation rate of 90 percent for participants.
Though reauthorization of the program still faces hurdles in the Senate and opposition in the White House, a piece of Boehner’s legacy was cemented Wednesday evening as the House approved the program.
Boehner did not make an appearance on the floor during the vote, nor did he cast a vote.