WASHINGTON -- After not a single Democrat voted for the House's Head Start plan, the Republican leading the Senate's preschool review reaffirmed he envisions a different approach.
"I am committed to working with my colleagues in the Senate, on both sides of the aisle, to craft a bill that best serves the children," said Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
Head Start, the nation's signature early education program for the poor, is typically revised with bipartisan support when it comes up for a periodic review like this year's.
The House plan, approved 217-216 early Friday morning, drew fire from Democrats and several child welfare groups. They opposed an experimental shift in power to states and a provision to allow religious groups to base Head Start hiring solely on people's religion.
The Bush administration backs both. The White House said Bush's senior advisers would recommend he veto the House bill if the religious hiring idea were stripped before it reached his desk.
In the end, House Republicans jockeyed for just enough votes to pass the bill after 12 GOP members broke ranks. Critics shifted focus Friday to the Senate, where action is just starting, and the matters of state control and religion-based hiring are open questions.
Gregg said he wants the states to coordinate Head Start centers better with other childhood programs. That was the same message from House Republicans and Bush, and Democrats agreed with the principle.
The contention arises over how to get there.
The House bill, which would let up to eight states apply for control over Head Start, is seen by Democrats as a ticket to spending cuts and lower standards. For every quality safeguard the Republicans point to in the bill, Democrats see another they call a loophole.
Gregg has not committed to how additional state flexibility might be offered.
He said he wants a bipartisan bill built around improving teacher qualifications and pupils' readiness for school. Key Democrats on Head Start -- Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut -- said they want the same. Those Democrats plan to release their own bill Tuesday as a marker of where they want to go.
"It's not only good for Democrats, our supporters and others who care about Head Start to know where we are, but also for Republicans. I'm anticipating some Republicans may really rally around the bill," Dodd said.
An aide to the Gregg-led education committee said Friday: "We're a little concerned that the Democrats feel they must put out a partisan bill at the same time we're beginning bipartisan discussions. Those two things seem to be a little bit at odds."
The Senate has 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and an independent.
As for the religious provision, Republicans say civil rights law already allows centers affiliated with religious institutions to base hiring decisions on religion. Gregg has no intention to introduce the issue unless it becomes clear a reaffirmation of some sort is needed, the aide said.
Democrats, meanwhile, say any such language would sanction discrimination.
"I would hope we would not embroil ourselves in those very controversial, very significant issues of church-state relations," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a member of the Senate education committee. "It will only interfere with deliberations on other important issues, like the qualifications of Head Start teachers, funding. ... It just triggers a whole host of issues, and frankly, I think it's unnecessary."
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Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions: http://health.senate.gov/