Political battle over student loans heating up
WASHINGTON – House Speaker John Boehner accused President Barack Obama on Thursday of conduct "beneath the dignity of the White House." The top House Democrat said Boehner considers the health of women "a luxury."
In a measure of the sharp elbows both parties are throwing this election year, note that those words were exchanged over legislation whose basic purpose they say they agree on: preventing interest rates on millions of federal student loans from doubling to 6.8 percent this summer.
Their chief remaining dispute is how to pay for the $5.9 billion cost of keeping those rates low. When it comes to that, each side has in effect taken a political hostage: House Republicans would cut spending from Obama's prized health care overhaul law, Senate Democrats would boost payroll taxes on owners of some private corporations and House Democrats would erase federal subsidies to oil and gas companies.
Thursday's partisan blasts were the latest, vivid example of how lawmakers are missing no chances this election season to portray themselves as seriously addressing voters' concerns about the economy and other issues while accusing the other side of blatantly playing political games.
The rhetoric intensified Thursday, a day before the House was set to vote on a GOP-written bill that would keep current 3.4 percent interest rates on subsidized Stafford loans intact for another year. The measure would be paid for by carving money out of a preventive health fund established by Obama's health care overhaul law — a measure most Democrats consider a prized accomplishment worth fighting for.
Obama spent two days this week barnstorming through three college campuses in North Carolina, Colorado and Iowa, using campaign-style speeches before cheering throngs of students to complain that Republicans are dragging their feet on blocking the interest rate boosts.
By Thursday, Boehner, R-Ohio, had had enough, accusing Obama of using taxpayer money to launch political attacks on Republicans for a problem that GOP lawmakers were already working to address.
"Frankly, I think this is beneath the dignity of the White House," Boehner told reporters. He added, "For the president to make a campaign issue and then to travel to three battleground states and go to three large college campuses on taxpayers money to try to make this some political issue is pathetic. And his campaign ought to be reimbursing the Treasury for the cost of this trip."
Boehner also accused Obama of waging "a fake fight to try to game his own re-election."
White House spokesman Jay Carney defended the travel as an effort to champion an important policy issue. He said by taking a high-profile stand in favor of extending the student loan rate, Obama succeeded in winning Republican support.
"It is eminently obvious that the president was out talking about a policy issue," Carney said. "This is official business. And he did it effectively."
The Pentagon says the Boeing 747 that is usually used as Air Force One costs $179,750 an hour to operate.
Despite the party-line divisions, some members of each party were considering defecting in Friday's vote.
The conservative Heritage Action for America was lobbying Republicans to oppose the GOP bill and let interest rates rise, saying to do otherwise would burden taxpayers. And party leaders were pressuring Democrats to vote against the Republican measure, with some Democrats eager to vote to keep student loan rates low despite the health care cuts.
Obama's budget would protect the 3.4 percent rates for a year. There are 7.4 million low- and middle-income students with subsidized Stafford loans, and the administration says the higher rates would cost each an average $1,000 over the life of the loan.
Minutes before Boehner spoke, he was the focus of attacks by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
She accused Republicans of paying for their student loan bill by raiding women's programs. That plays into a Democratic theme of recent weeks that Republicans are waging a war on women because of their stances on insurance coverage for contraception and other social issues.
The House GOP bill would cut a $17 billion prevention and public health fund whose projects include breast cancer screening, childhood immunizations, research and wellness education. Boehner and other Republicans have called the program a "slush fund," and Congress dipped into it earlier this year to prevent reductions in Medicare reimbursements for doctors.
"It may be a slush fund for him, but it's survival for women," Pelosi told reporters. "That just goes to show you what a luxury he thinks it is to have good health for women."
House Democrats have introduced their own version of the bill, sure to go nowhere in the Republican-dominated chamber, which would freeze student loan interest rates for a year and be paid for by reducing government subsidies to oil and gas companies, a favorite Democratic target.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., plans votes in May on his version of the bill.
It would pay for a one-year extension of the 3.4 percent interest rates by narrowing a tax shelter that lets owners of many privately held corporations who earn at least $250,000 a year avoid paying Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes on large parts of their incomes.
Senate Republicans have said they support keeping the student loan rates low but oppose the payroll tax increase.
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata and Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.