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Updated: 10 p.m.
Days after President Barack Obama began his push to avert a doubling of student loan interest rates, Hill Republicans followed presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s lead and beat a hasty retreat on the issue Tuesday.
As with the payroll tax cut extension last year, Obama appears to have picked his issue, defined the stakes and successfully backed the GOP into a corner on a popular expiring provision. The strategy again appears likely to deliver the White House a policy, as well as messaging, win.
“I don’t think anybody believes that the interest rate ought to be allowed to rise. The question is how you pay for it,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday, a day after Romney indicated that he supports temporarily extending the low 3.4 percent interest rate, citing the difficult economy.
The White House began to push on the issue last Friday, and Obama is now on a three-state tour of college campuses using the issue to highlight his differences with the GOP — contrasting student loans and other popular government programs with Republicans voting to protect tax cuts for the rich.
“If these folks in Washington were serious about making college more affordable, they wouldn’t have voted for a budget that could cut financial aid for tens of millions of college students by an average of more than $1,000,” Obama said of the Republican Party at a Tuesday event in North Carolina. “They certainly wouldn’t let your student loan rates double overnight.”
Obama then ripped the GOP for spending money on two wars and enacting two tax cuts without paying for them and voting for oil company subsidies and against the Buffett Rule requiring people making more than $1 million a year to pay at least a 30 percent tax rate.
“They even voted to give an average tax cut of at least $150,000 to folks like me, the wealthiest Americans — a tax cut paid for by cutting things like education and job training programs that give students new opportunities to work and succeed,” Obama said. “Now, that’s their priorities.”
But just because the president and Senate Democrats appear to have the upper hand doesn’t mean a partisan battle isn’t brewing on Capitol Hill over how to pay for the extension of low student loan interest rates. It’s a fight the White House and Senate Democrats seem happy to have.