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SILVER SPRING, Md. — Addressing a group of low-income and minority high school seniors here, Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s brief remarks about the ongoing student loan debate in Congress may have largely passed unnoticed by the students in the audience, who were celebrating their college picks.
But a group of parents and school officials in the audience murmured knowingly at the subject, and the Maryland Democrat said his conversations with the adults in the room revealed a close level of attention to the debate.
“Unless Congress resolves these issues, student loans will go from an interest rate of 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent,” Van Hollen told the audience. “We’re trying hard to prevent that from happening.”
Van Hollen was addressing a group of students that the nonprofit group CollegeTracks helped apply to college. The organization serves first-generation college-bound students, low-income students and minorities navigate the paperwork and deadlines of the college application process.
“It’s huge. It so vastly increases the cost of college,” Nancy Leopold, the group’s executive director, said about the interest rate of federal student loans.
Van Hollen did not bring political parties or partisanship into his remarks to the students.
He touted the importance of college in terms of the students achieving their “dreams” and for their financial security. And he said their success at college is pivotal to U.S. economic success. “We’re in a very competitive global economy,” Van Hollen said.
He also urged the students to remember federally subsidized loans and financial aid, the “rungs of the ladder” of opportunity, when they obtain high-paying jobs — and corresponding taxes — with their college degrees.
“As you become more successful, we are going to ask of you as taxpayers to contribute back to the system,” Van Hollen said.
Although President Barack Obama, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Republicans and Democrats in Congress have all expressed their support for moving to keep the student loan rate from doubling on July 1, how to pay for the proposal has divided the parties.
House Republicans voted to take $8 billion from an account in Obama’s health care law that they described as an “Obamacare slush fund.”
With equally dramatic language, Democrats hit back that Republicans were imperiling women’s health, with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) describing the money in the account as a matter of “survival” for women.
Speaker John Boehner’s office pointed out that $4 billion was taken from the same account to pay for the payroll tax cut in February.
In an interview after the event, Van Hollen said that taking an additional $8 billion from the health care account was more problematic than the original $4 billion.
He also hit Republicans for only embracing the lower interest rates for political expediency, noting that Rep. Paul Ryan’s House-passed GOP budget assumed the interest rates would double on schedule with current law.
“Democrats offered an amendment to fix this” in the budget’s markup, Van Hollen said, and it was voted down on a party-line vote.
The amendment would have increased taxes, violating a strongly held Republican policy position.
A Democratic aide said Democrats — incumbents and challengers — have been citing the student loan issue back home across the country as part of a “series of problems” with the Ryan budget.
In New Jersey for instance, Shelley Adler, a Democratic candidate challenging Republican Rep. Jon Runyan, has played up the issue.
“This is simply about values and priorities. We must have a budget that protects middle class families,” Adler, the widow of the Rep. John Adler, said in a statement last week.
Republicans are confident they’ve turned the issue into a political plus for them by transitioning the debate to the health care law, which remains unpopular, according to public polling.
They argue Democrats have boxed themselves in by defending the health care law at the cost of heading off the interest rate increase.
“House Democrats voted to allow rates to double because they evidently care more about protecting an Obamacare slush fund than helping college students. If those are their priorities, this is a debate we’re very comfortable having,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Boehner.
Van Hollen said he and Ryan, who has been featured in several high-profile news profiles this week, enjoy a good working relationship, but the Democrat vowed to challenge Republicans with a vigorous debate on the policy issues that they disagree on.
“It’s a totally lopsided approach,” Van Hollen said of Ryan’s budget.