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Democrats Duel on Student Loans


(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Ohio Clock Corridor outside the Senate chamber is usually a bit circus-like after the Tuesday party caucus lunches, but this particular Tuesday bordered on the absurd.

As the Democrats’ closed-door lunch was getting under way in the ornate room named for legendary Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana, the offices of three members of the Democratic caucus announced a media availability after lunch in the hallway outside the room.

Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Thomas R. Carper of Delaware were to be joined by Maine’s Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. The three had negotiated a bipartisan student loan compromise with several Republicans, including Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, that’s been criticized by many other Democrats, including Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

The effect was an unusual display of dueling Democratic media stakeouts just a few feet apart.

“The basic principle of the vast majority of my caucus is that students deserve low interest rates,” Reid said. “We should be making the burden lighter for students and their families, not seeking profits and I’m sorry to say that’s what happens now.”

“The two Republican proposals — one from the House and one from the Senate — are worse than nothing. That’s what the students say,” Reid said. “I’ve told my caucus, I’ve told individual senators, if you can explain to me why doing something is better than doing nothing, then we’ll do it. But all the proposals, within two years, at the outside three years, make the rate more than 6.8 percent.”

The 6.8 percent rate is what’s fixed under current law after lower interest rates expired at the end of June.

Reid favors a one-year revival of lower interest rates for federal student loans, paid for with a revenue-raising change to accounting for retirement plans. That plan, sponsored by a number of Democrats led by Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Tom Harkin of Iowa, faces a test vote Wednesday.

The Manchin-King-Carper media advisory immediately struck a peculiar cord, since the main hallway near the Mansfield room is the same one used by Reid and his GOP counterpart, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, for their weekly news conferences at a regularly approved stakeout location (meaning they’re speaking to the array of TV cameras).

When lunch ended, McConnell spoke first, flanked by Alexander instead of his usual assortment of Senate Republican leaders. As the ranking member on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and a former Education secretary, he’s something of a GOP point man on the issue.

“This is turning the student loan issue into something like what we call the ‘doc-fix,’ where we stand around and don’t do anything for doctors who work for Medicare patients, and then we come in with a last-minute solution,” Alexander said, calling for a broader permanent answer. Reid and others say more time is needed to develop a long-term solution.

It was after Alexander and McConnell departed that things got interesting. Reid went through his opening remarks and reporters fired off a battery of questions, but at the opposite end of the hallway, Manchin, King and Carper had emerged from the Mansfield room to speak to a separate gaggle of reporters. The effect was dueling news conferences, during which Reid would refer to the senators at the other end of the hallway, out of earshot of anyone at that end.

Democratic Sens. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Charles E. Schumer of New York emerged, appearing to serve as a sort of pick between the two camps.

After Reid exited the hallway and disappeared into the chamber, other senators eventually got to the vacated podium. An aide, who had already begun the tear-down process for the leadership stakeout, replaced the Senate seal and Manchin’s group went on with their pitch.

The visual, though, was indicative of the split between Democrats.

Reid also told reporters during his portion of the program that he would discuss the matter this afternoon with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Meredith Shiner contributed to this report.

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