Feb. 12, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Sides Still Talking as Deadline Looms

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Senate would stay into the weekend if necessary to complete its “substantial workload.”

The composition of the conference committee has been viewed as a litmus test for whether Boehner can clear a deal through his conservative Conference, with eight of Boehner’s 20 appointed conferees being freshmen. If they can approve the compromise in the conference committee, it’s likely the package could garner enough votes for final passage.

Although House GOP leaders have yet to endorse the idea of linking student loans and the highway bill — which has been discussed privately in the Senate — they remain open to the idea if a deal on both topics can be reached. Some sources have suggested it might be easier to pass both measures together. Reid has floated a proposal to pay for such a deal in a way that has overlapping offsets. But there is a wider consensus on student loans, even though missing the July 1 deadline to keep rates from doubling is less serious than missing the transportation deadline, when some highway projects will stop. Interest rates can be fixed retroactively.

Senate leadership sources were being especially coy Monday and did not want to speak to any of the specifics on either set of talks. In Congress, silence can cut both ways: Either the sides are close to a deal and don’t want to leak the details, or they are far apart and scrambling to find suitable alternatives. Democratic sources, however, indicated that it would be bad for the White House and even their own candidates running for re-election if transportation projects that create jobs lapse and loan rates go up. Though no one is speaking openly about another temporary highway extension, some sources suggested neither party is eager to fall short on the issue.

House GOP leaders are playing a wait-and-see game on student loans. According to GOP leadership aides, Boehner at this point is content to allow Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to take the lead in negotiating with Reid. With Republicans in both chambers largely united on the issue — and both leaders wary of a repeat of last winter’s payroll tax cut debacle — it is unlikely McConnell would cut a deal he wasn’t sure would make it through the House.

Republicans in particular are eager to have the issue behind them; Democrats have been relatively successful in painting the party as standing in the way of an extension despite repeated statements to the contrary, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has used the standoff on student loans to hammer Republicans.

For instance, on Monday the DCCC circulated a release to local media in 60 districts represented by Republicans accusing them of voting “to protect taxpayer subsidies for Big Oil companies instead of stopping these student loan rates from increasing by $1,000 per person at the end of the month.”

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