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White House Sees House GOP as Useful Foil

Michael Francis McElroy/Getty Images

In a year when President Barack Obama is basing his re-election campaign on the issue of fairness, the White House believes House Republicans are playing into their hands, time and again.

Senior administration officials in background briefings for reporters repeatedly turn to the fairness issue — and the Republican push for more tax breaks for the wealthy — as a key issue for voters heading into the fall elections. And the GOP keeps giving them more fuel.

First, Republicans doubled down on Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget blueprint with big cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps alongside steep reductions in tax rates. Last week, they brought House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) 20 percent tax cut for small businesses to the floor — which Democrats, backed by a stinging veto threat, gleefully ripped for giving tens of billions of dollars more to the rich regardless of whether they create jobs. A Senate Democratic plan backed by the White House would reward companies that hire more workers or buy new equipment.

This week, Obama will travel to three swing states — North Carolina, Colorado and Iowa — to call on Republicans to keep student loan rates from doubling this summer.

Obama tied the issue to the tax cuts in his weekly radio address.

“Republicans in Congress have voted against new ways to make college more affordable for middle-class families, and voted for huge new tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires — tax cuts that would have to be paid for by cutting things like education and job-training programs that give students new opportunities to work and succeed,” he said.

The student loan fight is the kind of ready-made issue — like the payroll tax cut extension last Christmas — that Democrats hope will force Republicans to the bargaining table. But even if they don’t win on the legislative front, Democrats believe they can continue to hammer home the message of fairness and investing in the future that Obama is making the centerpieces of his re-election campaign.

Unless Congress acts, 7 million students will face an average $1,000 a year in higher interest costs, Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned Friday during an appearance at the White House. A law passed in 2007 cut student loan interest rates, but it left a ticking time bomb — a doubling of rates on June 30 — just months before the 2012 elections.

Duncan said the issue should be the kind of thing that transcends partisan bickering.

“You know, Congress is struggling these days, there’s no question about that,” Duncan said. “And if there’s going to be one issue that folks can unite behind, I can’t think of ... a better one than around education, educating our way to a better economy.”

Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee, said in a statement Friday that Republicans are looking for a solution, but he didn’t sound inclined to support a stopgap bill, which would cost $6 billion.

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