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Cautious Optimism on Loans, Highway Bill

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Democrats and Republicans are making progress on a transportation bill and an extension of current student loan rates.

Environmental streamlining changes were the focus of talks over the weekend, sources said, and have been discussed more widely. Reid acknowledged he has fielded concerns from those worried about environmental issues, but he warned that the people who are complaining haven’t read the bill text — largely because it hasn’t been agreed to or written yet.

“I have received calls from a number of my Senators, people outside the Senate. We have concerns about a lot of things, but they don’t know what’s in the bill,” Reid said. “I’ve tried to alleviate the concerns that my Members have until they see what’s in the bill. And in the meantime, as I said before, everyone has to just kind of sit still and see what the negotiators work out.”

The idea that leaders will pair the transportation effort directly with the student loan effort gained momentum Tuesday, weeks after it was first floated by Reid to Republicans as a way to pay for the package.

Time is running short to extend both measures, which expire at the end of this month, and Members and their staffs are concerned about the firestorm of issues that will consume Capitol Hill on Thursday, from the Supreme Court’s ruling on President Barack Obama’s signature health care law to a House vote on whether to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress.

Sources are worried that if a deal isn’t hammered out by tonight it will cause problems on multiple fronts. First, negotiators would blow past the House Rules deadline that states any bill needs to be posted for three legislative days before the chamber can vote. Moreover, there won’t be enough time or breathing room to vet major deals that affect millions of jobs in highway construction and put millions of students on the hook for a doubling of student loan interest rates.

McConnell said Tuesday that the White House has not been involved in negotiations, and some Republican aides speculated that there was division among administration officials over whether to strike a deal or let Congress fail and blame the GOP. Democrats insist that the narrative of an obstructionist Republican Party already has been set and that they are focused on making sure these important provisions do not lapse.

“We’re moving toward completion this week of both the extension of the student loan rates at the current level for another year. The president’s been largely uninvolved in that, but Sen. Reid and I have an understanding that we think will be acceptable to the House,” McConnell said. “They may or may not be coupled with the highway proposal over in the House. That, to my knowledge, is not yet resolved as to whether that will be some kind of an extension or a full multiyear bill, but those two could end up together. Both need to be dealt with this week.”

The White House released a statement praising any deal on loan rates: “We’re pleased that the Senate has reached a deal to keep rates low and continue offering hard-working students a fair shot at an affordable education.”

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