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Dems, GOP using popular bills to hurt other party

By Alan Fram

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, May 13 2012 10:34 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this May 8, 2012, file photo political science major Clarise McCants of Philadelphia is flanked by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, left, and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., right, as she talks about student loans on Capitol Hill. The student loan bill underscored the current partisan positioning in Congress, that's producing little that will become law. If want to keep federally subsidized loan interest rates from doubling on July 1 for millions of college students, and you're a House Democrat, you had to vote for a Republican bill, financed by obliterating a preventive health program created in the Democrat-cherished health care overhaul; if you were a Senate Republican, you had to support a Democratic bill, financed by boosting payroll taxes on upscale owners of some privately owned companies, a nonstarter for most Republicans.

J. Scott Applewhite, File, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Congress is producing little this election year that will become law, yet both parties are churning out bills designed to make the other side look bad.

Take a look at separate measures that would protect women from violence, keep student loan rates low and build roads and bridges. Each is a widely shared goal and seemingly easy to enact. But the proposals are caught in pitched battles, each party adding language that infuriates the other.

As a result, the Democratic-led Senate and Republican-run House are writing legislation that dies right away or is assured of going nowhere in the other chamber. Instead of laws, the bills generate grist for fundraising pitches and campaign attack ads.

"It was, 'Let's put a bill on the floor that we know Republicans will never support, designed specifically to fail, so we can then spend the week talking about this on the Sunday talk shows and speeches on the floor and missives from the campaign,'" Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., complained last week after GOP senators voted in virtual lockstep to block Democrats' student loan bill.

The constant wrangling is doing little to appease voters. In this month's Associated Press-GfK poll, only 18 percent gave favorable grades to Congress. That was slightly better than last summer, but still dreadfully low.

The student loan bill underscored the partisan positioning afoot.

Want to keep interest rates on subsidized Stafford loans from doubling for 7.4 million undergraduates on July 1? If you were a House Democrat, you had to vote for a GOP bill financed by obliterating a preventive health program created by President Barack Obama's cherished health care overhaul.

If you were a Senate Republican, you had to support a Democratic bill financed by boosting payroll taxes on upscale owners of some privately owned companies — a nonstarter for most Republicans.

Not surprisingly, there were few takers, and neither chamber produced a bill that had any prospect of final approval.

Democrats denied their motivation was producing fodder for campaigns. But they accused House Republicans of doing just that with a highway bill that requires construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast, which Obama and many Democrats have opposed for environmental reasons.

"We ought to quit taking jabs at one another to score political points," said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va.

The tactic has been given the nickname "poison pill" because it sometimes causes the demise of the legislation to which the provision is attached.

"They do it because, in part, voters are not fully informed about legislation and a lot of votes are difficult to understand," said Marc Meredith, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied voters' decision making. "You can put members of Congress in a tough spot because voters aren't fully informed about why members voted in a certain way."

Shortly after the House voted April 27 to approve the GOP student loan bill, paid for by cutting Obama's health overhaul and supported by just 13 Democrats, Republicans sent news releases to dozens of congressional districts.

Democrats decided "protecting the Democrats' government takeover of health care was more important than helping future college graduates," the releases said.

Democrats argued it was wrong to cut health care programs to keep student loan interest rates from growing. Yet they were happy to use the tactic after two-thirds of Republican senators voted against a Democratic bill extending programs to protect women from violence and adding new protections for gays and transgender people.

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