Student Loan Bill Caught in Limbo

Despite Offers From Both Parties, Politics May Stall Progress

Posted June 15, 2012 at 5:49pm

Congress has two weeks to reach a deal to prevent student loan interest rates from doubling, and while both parties agree it’s good policy to keep rates low, it seems that at this point they also think it’s better politics to make the other side look responsible for failure.

Republican leaders have made an offer to Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has made an offer to Republicans. Both offers came in the form of letters, issued weeks apart, and neither side has yet moved to kick off formal talks on the proposed frameworks. Even more telling has been the virtual silence from the White House.

Although President Barack Obama is regularly incorporating talking points on student loans in his stump speeches on the road, the administration has not been leaning on Congress through internal channels, according to multiple sources in both parties. And with the significant overlap in parts of the plans offered by Congressional Republicans and Democrats, it seems the one missing ingredient is pressure from across Pennsylvania Avenue to force everyone’s hand.

“If the White House is concerned that we’re headed for a meltdown, they certainly have a funny way of showing it. They’ve never even called to discuss the topic,” said one senior Senate Republican aide.

The current student loan interest rate is set to double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1. The hang-up in Congress has been over how to pay for the nearly
$6 billion extension of current interest rates.

Both Obama and presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney have endorsed a continuation of the current rates, which should be enough political juice to get Congress going. But to date, the two sides have enjoyed playing football with the issue, hoping that whoever is holding the ball when time expires can be blamed for the rate hike that would affect the more than 7 million undergraduate students who use the loan program to pay their way through school.

And the rate hike wouldn’t be the first hit to students leveled by this Congress. As it stands, the Budget Control Act of 2011 already eliminated subsidized Stafford loans for graduate students.

In an offer made late last month, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) outlined two proposed offsets. One included Medicaid changes that would be unacceptable to Democrats. But the other alternative seemed to provide enough room for compromise for Democrats to work with.

The Republicans offered an increase in current employee contributions to the Civil Service Retirement System over the next three years to offset the cost.

In his letter to Republicans, Reid proposed a payfor that already was agreed to by Republicans in a Senate transportation bill. Reid suggested creating fewer tax deductions for pension contributions and increasing premiums that employers pay in to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.

“The combination of these two proposals will provide sufficient resources to fund both a one-year extension of the current student loan interest rate and reauthorization of the nation’s surface transportation programs,” Reid wrote in the letter.

The highway measure also needs to be reauthorized by the end of the month, but short of a deal out of the conference committee, lawmakers may move again on a temporary extension.

The White House issued an emailed statement in response to an inquiry on the progress of negotiations, or the lack thereof.

“We’re confident that if Congressional Republicans are serious about sparing more than 7 million students the equivalent of a $1,000 tax hike, Members of both parties can come together and get this done before rates double in two weeks,” White House spokesman Matt Lehrich said.

At a campaign event last week, Obama cited improved affordability for American college students as one of the key pillars of why supporters should continue to back him.

“I’m running to make sure that we continue on a path of providing the best education possible for every single one of our children, and make sure that we’ve got the highest rates of college graduates of any country on Earth, because that’s going to be the future,” Obama said at an event in Philadelphia. “We’re able to make sure that we can cap the amount of money that folks have to pay back each month on their student loans, because we recognized that a higher education cannot be a luxury.  You can’t just count on the fact that your parents are paying for your college education — a lot of kids need help.  And that’s good for the country.  We’re not going backwards on that, we’re going to keep moving forward.”

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.