President Barack Obama waves to students at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va., on Friday while speaking on the interest rates of federal student loans.
Republicans are determined to stop Democrats from turning this week’s student loan interest rate debate into a political issue, even as the GOP prepares to oppose parts of the Democratic plan.
“The conversation is now over the pay-for, not whether to do it, as Democrats had hoped,” a Senate GOP aide said, adding Republicans want to pay for it in a responsible way.
In a sign of their desire to downplay the partisan tensions, Senate Republicans on Tuesday are expected to help Democrats reach the 60 votes needed to overcome a procedural hurdle to bringing the measure to the floor.
By agreeing with Democrats on the outcome, Republicans have sought to head off Democratic efforts to try to paint them as out of touch with students — a potentially key part of the electorate that each side is vying for ahead of the November election.
The Senate GOP aide credited presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for taking the issue “off the table” when he said that he, too, supports passage legislation that would extend current law and keep the interest rates on Stafford loans at 3.4 percent.
Nevertheless, at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va., on Friday, President Obama rallied students to urge Congress to pass legislation that would avoid the doubling of Stafford loan interest rates, which would surge to 6.8 percent if Congress does not act by July 1.
“For each year that Congress doesn’t act, the average student, with these Stafford loans, will rack up an additional thousand dollars in debt,” Obama said. “That’s like a thousand-dollar tax hike for more than 7 million students across America.”
“Now, let me ask: Is that something that you can afford if you’re going to college?” Obama asked the audience.
The president’s comments capped off a week in which Democrats tried to lay down their markers for the Tuesday vote on the student loan bill, which would cover the $6 billion cost of preventing the rise in interest rates by eliminating a corporate tax loophole that allows wealthy individuals to pay less in Social Security and Medicare taxes.
In an attempt to blunt Democratic criticism and show they have the same goal to prevent interest rate increases, the GOP-led House passed a student loan bill that would be paid for by eliminating a fund in the 2010 health care overhaul that covers prevention and public health. The House bill passed 215-195 on April 27, after a week in which Obama and Congressional Democrats raised the specter that GOP opposition could imperil the effort.
The White House has threatened to veto the House bill, calling it a “politically motivated proposal and not the serious response that the problem facing America’s college students deserves.”
Senate Democratic aides said they expect at least seven GOP Senators to vote to move forward with the bill because Republicans are likely to offer the House offset as an amendment. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has introduced a Senate companion to the House measure.
A GOP aide said a deal is already in sight, noting the House’s preventive care fund offset was part of the pay-for in the February deal to extend the current payroll tax cut through the end of the year. “The wheels are greased,” the aide said. “Let’s get this done.”
But regardless of the Senate vote, the White House plans to keep up its full-court press on the issue.
“This should be a no-brainer,” Obama said Friday. Obama pointed to the vote in the Senate, and said he’s prepared to work with Senate Republicans to find a compromise. He also framed the issue as part of his larger battle against the GOP on raising taxes for the wealthy.
“They just voted to let millionaires and billionaires keep paying lower tax rates than middle-class workers. ... And they want you to pay an extra $1,000 a year for college,” he ripped.
Obama will hold a conference call Monday touting the issue, and Vice President Joseph Biden will address the issue at an event Thursday at the White House.
The administration also is going to deploy Cabinet officials across the country to highlight the issue. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis will be holding events in Phoenix, Chicago and Columbus, Ohio; Small Business Administrator Kim Mills will hold an event in Denver; and Trade Representative Ron Kirk will go to Dallas. Other top officials will fan out to Massachusetts, North Carolina, Michigan, Minnesota and Texas, according to the White House.
Obama also said he would ask Congress this week to do more on jobs after Friday’s disappointing unemployment report. Senior administration officials have previously said Obama will keep pushing pieces of his American Jobs Act that were largely rejected by Republicans last year. Senate Democrats are expected to move one piece — a tax cut for businesses that hire new workers or buy new equipment — this month.