In the battle for the hearts and votes of young people, the House voted on Friday to prevent interest rates on federal student loans from doubling this summer from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. While the measure is likely to be enacted by Congress and signed into law before this summer’s deadline, Republicans and Democrats once again engaged in a bitter dispute over how to offset the $5.9 billion cost of the action.
The Republican House approach, approved 215 to 195, would use preventative care funds for women and children in the Obama health care reform program to offset the income the Treasury would forego if the student loan interest rate remains the same. The president would veto this non-starter. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, dismissed the program that provides breast and cervical exams for women and vaccinations for children as a “slush fund” that Obama himself agreed to trim by $4 billion to help finance a payroll tax cut extension.
In response to Democratic charges today that the Republicans were once again waging an assault on women and government programs important to them, Boehner said on the House floor this morning, “Give me a break. This is the latest plank in the so-called ‘War on Women' that is entirely created by my colleagues across the aisle for political gain. So to accuse us of wanting to gut women’s health is absolutely not true."
Public funding of abortions other related women’s health issues have been a prominent subtext of the Republican presidential campaign and conservative commentary, prompting Democrats to accuse the Republicans of waging war on women’s rights. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California today accused House Republicans of "undermining ongoing prevention initiatives for childhood immunization, screening for breast and cervical cancer and for efforts to reduce birth defects.
Rep. John F. Tierney, D-Mass., charged that House Republicans were engaging in a “cynical” attack on an important women’s and children health care program under the guise of trying to help students with their mounting debt burden. “If we really want to set aside partisanship and do this, let’s pick a pay-for that the American public can get behind and that we can all agree on,” Tierney said.
The House-passed bill would eliminate the remaining $12 billion from the so-called Prevention and Public Health Fund. “By reclaiming a portion of the administration’s misguided health care law through the elimination of this blank-check program, the legislation would extend lower rates for college loans, granting relief to our young people without raising taxes on their potential employers,.” said Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., the chief author of the bill.
For their part, the Democrats would cover the cost of preserving the current student loan interest rate by raising payroll taxes on wealthier private business owners – a method anathema to the GOP. The Democrats’ approach, embodied in legislation awaiting action in the Senate, appears to be yet another attempt to raise the “tax fairness” issue by insisting that wealthier Americans pay more in taxes.
In all, 202 Republicans and 13 Democrats voted for the measure, while 165 Democrats and 30 Republicans voted against it.
The burgeoning problem of student debt has received extraordinary attention this week from President Obama on the campaign trail, as he attempts to recreate the excitement he generated on college campuses four years ago. Obama urged Congress to move quickly to avert a rise in the government student loan interest rates, which would cost the average student more than $1,000 over the life of the loan. About 7.4 million students and young people would be affected.
Republicans have paid little attention to the student loan debt issue until now, but they moved swiftly this week to try to blunt the president’s momentum on the issue. Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, announced he would support legislation that would block a doubling of the interest rate, without providing any details. Then Boehner scheduled the House vote for this morning, well ahead of the Democratic controlled Senate’s scheduled action early next week.
Boehner’s decision to hold a vote today in part was a response to Obama’s pot shots at the House Republicans earlier this week. Speaking to an enthusiastic crowd of students Wednesday at the University of Iowa, the president said some Senate Republicans appeared ready to support an extension of the federal student loan rate but that House Republicans were indicating that they would only extend the rate by cutting other student aid.
"They've hinted that the only way they'd do it is if they cut things like aid for low income students," Obama said. “Think about that. We're going to help some students by messing with other students. That's not a good answer."
The maneuvering underscored the intense rivalry between Democrats and Republicans over appealing to college students and voters with college degrees, who overwhelmingly went for Obama over Republican Senator John McCain in the 2008 presidential election. The skyrocketing costs of a college education and the unprecedented levels of college debt are also part of a larger discussion about the financial pressures Americans are facing as the economic recovery continues to sputter.
“What Washington shouldn’t be doing is exploiting the challenges that young Americans face for political gain,” Boehner told reporters earlier this week. “And it shouldn’t be sticking small businesses with a health-care law that’s making it more difficult for them to hire workers.”
Asked whether the two parties were posturing in calling for a $6 billion measure to help students in the face of a mounting national debt, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said Thursday, "I think this is as central to our debate as anything. This is about the education of our children, the competitiveness of America, to give people the opportunity to reach their personal aspirations for sure, but essential to our success in the global economy.... That is called the American dream."
Pelosi added today that House Republicans “folded” under pressure from Obama to address the student loan interest problem, and that the issue had become “too hot” for them to continue to ignore.
Republicans strongly object to the Democrats’ plan to finance the student interest by making it more difficult for owners of smaller, privately owned companies from avoiding paying Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes on some of their income. The proposal would apply to such companies with incomes exceeding $250,000 and whose revenues come primarily from the work of three or fewer owners. Some law firms, doctors' practices and other professional services partnerships would be affected as well.
However, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the House GOP approach of wiping out spending for preventative care is equally objectionable to his party. "Democrats are opposed to short changing a program that prevents disease and protects against public health emergencies just so Republicans can continue protecting millionaire tax dodgers," he said.