Dem's student loan bill sinks in the Senate, debate more complicated under the surface

Published: Tuesday, May 8 2012 3:03 p.m. MDT

In this March 13, 2012, file photo Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., joins students at a Capitol Hill news conference to announce the collection of over 130,000 letters to Congress to prevent student loan interest rates from doubling this July.

Associated Press

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A looming boost in student loan interest rates may provide President Barack Obama a valuable talking point as he continues his campaign for a second term, after Republicans derailed a Democratic bill in the Senate Tuesday.

However, the issue is muddier than it may first appear.

The Democratic bill, designed to keep interest rates on college loans from doubling this summer, fell 52-45 Tuesday, eight votes short of the 60 needed to start debate. With Congressional action, today's 3.4 percent interest rate on subsidized Stafford loans would be extended for another year. Without Congress, the rate would go up to 6.8 percent.

A debate over funding for the $6 billion extension ultimately led to the bill's demise, as Democrats sought to raise payroll taxes on high-earning stockholders of some privately owned corporations to pay for the bill.

In contrast, Republicans in the House and Senate are seeking a vote on their own bill, which would freeze interest rates as well, but pay for it by eliminating a fund included in Obama's 2010 health care overhaul. The House bill, H.R. 4628, passed the House on April 27 and was received in the Senate on Monday.

The House GOP bill has been criticized by Democrats and liberal groups, with former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., calling it an "assault on women's health."

"We will not support a bill that robs Peter to pay Paul, which ostensibly supports a middle-class initiative while making those very same people pay for it," Pelosi said during her weekly news conference.

In an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper, MoveOn.org Executive Director Justin Ruben echoed this, saying Republicans are threatening women by trying to cut funding for the program. Cooper, however, pointed out that Democrats have tried to cut this same funding before.

"When President Obama suggests in his 2013 budget cutting billions of dollars from (this program), I don't see a MoveOn.org ad saying President Obama is attacking women," Cooper said. "You only seem to be targeting Republicans because that meets your political agenda."

"I don't think it's fair to say President Obama is waging a war on women, of course not," Ruben said when Cooper pressed the point.

"But Republicans are?" Cooper asked.

"Yes," Ruben replied.

The president has threatened to veto the House's student loan bill if it is passed.

The Heritage Foundation objected to both Republican and Democratic versions of the bill, writing that while the bill would cost taxpayers $5.9 billion for a one-year extension, it would impact a narrow group of students, saving them just $7 a month after they graduate.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., also cited the Congressional Research Service's projected $7 in monthly savings as he introduced the Student Loan interest Rate Reduction Act of 2012 on April 25. His bill, he said, addresses government overcharging students on student loans in the first place.

"Under the health care law, the government borrows money at 2.8 percent," Alexander said. "The government then loans to students at 6.8 percent. That produces a profit. The Congressional Budget Office has said that the Congress could have lowered the interest rate from 6.8 to 5.3 percent and save all students $2,200 over the life of their average 10-year loan."

In a post at Speaker of the House John Boehner's blog, Boehner, R-Ohio, wrote that Democrats are reaping what they sowed, saying Democrats originally lowered the rate in 2007 and are now looking to create a fight over to an expiration date Democrats themselves set.

"The president is looking to create a fight over how to deal with the rate hike," Boehner wrote. "What the president hasn't done is explain how he responsibly plans to pay for the cost of the one-year extension he is proposing."

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