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Democrats Vow to Push GOP to Address Student Debt

Murray, left, and Schumer, right, said they will push the GOP to address student debt. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senate Democrats pledged Thursday to prod the Republicans who control Congress to combat student loan debt this year, whether through legislation or floor amendments.  

"I want to make sure that we get this done," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., one of several Democrats unveiling a legislative package to relieve spiraling debt levels. According to the Federal Reserve, student loan debt topped $1.3 trillion in Sept. 2015. "We’re willing to look at any way to get that done.” That could include a tactic that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., floated on Wednesday , which involved trading Democratic support for bringing legislation to the floor in exchange for votes on amendments related to Democratic priorities.  

"We want to work with our colleagues, as Sen. Murray said, in a bipartisan way," said New York Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer. "But this is such an important issue that’s so vital to the future of all of Americans and our future, that we’re going to try to get this done any way we can.  We prefer Republicans join us and do this in a bipartisan way, but we will not stop if they don’t.”  

The group of Senate Democrats joined roughly a dozen college students sporting red buttons signifying the "In the Red" campaign to address student debt. The campaign, backed by a number of advocacy groups, launched during President Barack Obama's final State of the Union, when members brought college students as their guests and wore pins themselves.  

The campaign took a step forward Thursday, with the unveiling of the Reducing Educational Debt, or RED Act. The legislation packages three bills, two of which were introduced in the last Congress and one that was introduced last year. The bills package includes Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren's proposal to allow students to refinance their loans at lower interest rates, Hawaii Sen. Mazie K. Hirono's proposal to index Pell Grants to inflation, and Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin's proposal to make community college tuition free. No Republicans have signed onto those bills.  

With Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., repeatedly emphasizing that his main priority this year is passing all 12 spending bills, the package of student debt legislation does not appear likely to come up in the GOP-controlled Senate. But Democrats anticipate student debt will become an issue ahead of the 2016 elections. They expect to visit college campuses throughout the year to highlight their legislative proposals, according to a news release.  

“I think that the people of this country and the people of the states are going to push for it to be a campaign issue because it is  a shockingly horrible crisis right now,” said Baldwin, when asked if she would campaign on the issue in her own state, which will likely be home to a tight Senate race between Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and former Democratic senator Russ Feingold.  

“Frankly," Baldwin said, "if anyone affected by this crisis, no matter their age, has a chance to speak with people who are holding themselves out for office, we need to hold their feet to the fire."

Contact Bowman at  bridgetbowman@rollcall.com  and follow her on Twitter at @bridgetbhc .

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