A couple weeks ago, Education Secretary Arne Duncan came out strongly for a proposal by Tom Harkin to add $23 billion dollars into an upcoming spending bill to give to the states so they could avoid laying off 300,000 teachers. With state budget cuts looming, teachers were at risk, class sizes were sure to rise, and students were going to get a lower standard of education. So Duncan urged Congress to act.

But he apparently did such a poor job of acting that the teacher funding has been pulled from the Senate version of the bill where it was going to get stuck.

The House and Senate are struggling with two big spending bills before Memorial Day — a heavy lift that begs for a strong White House partner. But the administration appears internally conflicted and has adopted the practice of urging lawmakers to add new spending for its priorities without having President Barack Obama sign a real request.

A $23 billion emergency proposal to forestall threatened layoffs of public school teachers is now a likely casualty of this approach. In a letter to Democratic leaders May 13, Education Secretary Arne Duncan endorsed the funding, urging Congress to add the money to a pending war funding bill in the Senate. But the White House never forwarded a budget request and was conspicuously silent on the whole teachers funding issue when it issued its endorsement of the underlying $58.8 billion bill this week.

With the handwriting on the wall, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) retreated Tuesday from offering his amendment. Duncan is next scheduled to appear Wednesday morning alongside House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey, who has promised to add the same $23 billion to his draft of the war funding bill Thursday. But the Wisconsin Democrat is clearly frustrated by the administration’s approach and, after the setback in the Senate, said the White House is creating conditions that only invite failure.

We’re not a week into this Administration. They’ve been through one budget cycle. Mistakes like this are either unconscionable or deliberate. The $500 million for border security attached to a National Guard presence gets tossed in at the last minute, and a teacher funding bill which has been on the priority list for two weeks gets scuttled amidst mixed messages. Can’t anyone here play this game?

I don’t know why a Presidential signature is so important and consequential anyway, but in the world of Congress, it is, seemingly. And the White House knows this. But they keep bungling what they claim to be their own priorities.

I fully expect Obey to add quite a bit of domestic spending into the war supplemental, but understand that this confusion threatens both any attachments to that supplemental bill, and the $180-$200 billion tax extenders/jobs/loophole closure bill, which may get a vote in the House today.

UPDATE: To give you a sense of what’s in the billowing tax extenders/jobs bill, here’s the scoop from the Majority Whip’s office.

UPDATE II: The NEA has a national day of action planned today to call Congress on the education jobs fund, and they’re running this ad in Washington: