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Math Trips Up Latest Student Loan Fix

Senators trying to craft legislation offering a permanent fix to the federal student loan program are in a pickle: Republicans do not want a Congressional Budget Office score that adds to the deficit; Democrats do not want a score that shrinks it.

Senate Republicans balked Thursday at a CBO score showing the most recent bipartisan effort would cost $22 billion over the coming decade.

A bipartisan group of senators negotiated the most recent framework Wednesday night in Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin’s office, when it had been reported there was a deal, though sources tracking the talks warned against reporting the agreement as final.

The math to get to a deal is complicated by the $158 billion in profits the CBO projects the federal government will make off the program over the next decade — profits that both parties are counting on in their budgets despite a White House talking point that says the deficit shouldn’t be reduced on the the backs of students. Any effort to cap or cut rates upfront for students would have to be balanced by higher rates later or else those profits would shrink and — via the CBO’s math — swell the deficit. Cutting students a $22 billion break, the cost estimated for this most recent permanent fix, apparently was too steep a price for the GOP.

Congressional Democrats meanwhile have been divided over the issue — unwilling to go along with the White House’s own plan while struggling to agree on a permanent fix of their own — and have been pounded daily by the GOP as a result.

This, compounded by the political oxygen in the Capitol being sucked up by the threat of a rules change, has made a complicated legislative tango even more so. Many liberals argue that no bill at all would be better than a framework that caps loan rates above current law — which is precisely where the last agreement was. So with Republicans gun-shy about the CBO score and Democrats unhappy about being in this position at all, it’s unclear what coalition could come together around a permanent fix. Members of the bipartisan negotiating group had hoped for votes next week, but as recently as Thursday morning detractors of the bill questioned whether that timing was possible. Given the reaction to the score Thursday afternoon, that seems especially prescient.

If you want to read about the deal that wasn’t a deal you can do so here.

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