A battle over how to avert a student loan interest rate hike is breeding political opportunism on both sides of the divide. Republicans are trying to use to occasion to slice off a piece of “Obamacare,” and Democrats are turning it into another debate about women’s health.
Leaders of both parties want to freeze existing rates on federally-subsidized student loans. House Republicans voted Friday to do so by repealing the health care reform law’s currently $10 billion prevention and public health fund. The White House has threatened veto and Democrats are protesting the pay-for.
The Republicans’ spin: Obama has supported the cut before.
“For the president to politicize this for his own reelection is picking a fight where one doesn’t exist,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union, describing the prevention fund as a consensus cut that President Obama has backed in his budget proposals.
The charge is accurate but misleading.
The originally $15 billion fund beefs up the nation’s capacity to combat disease and promote public health. Obama targeted it for a $3.5 billion cut in his 2011 budget, and raised the figure to $4 billion in his 2012 budget. This February, he signed a $5 billion cut to the fund in the payroll tax cut extension bill, which was backed by most Democrats.
In other words, Obama has already cut more from the prevention fund than he has proposed or said he’s comfortable with.
Apart from that, Boehner insisted that “[n]o one wants student loan interest rates to go up” — a shift after House Republicans voted last month to let them expire in the Paul Ryan budget. The pivot transpired after Mitt Romney, who is courting young voters, backed Obama’s effort to avert a rate hike. Tying it to “Obamacare” cuts helps the GOP appease conservatives who do not support extending the current rate.
The Democrats’ spin: This cut will hurt women.
“Women, in particular, will benefit from this Prevention Fund, which would provide for hundreds of thousands of screenings for breast and cervical cancer,” read a White House statement explaining its veto threat. “This is a politically-motivated proposal and not the serious response that the problem facing America’s college students deserves.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on Friday called it “another assault on women’s health” by the Republicans.
The prevention fund’s impact on women is a newfound concern for Democrats — one that coincides with their key election-year message that Republicans are anti-women. As recently as February, neither Obama nor Democratic leaders voiced opposition to the $5 billion cut, let alone fretted that slashing one-third of the prevention fund would harm women. The likely reason is that women’s health is hardly a focal point of the fund’s programs.
The fate of the Stafford loan rate now hinges on whether the two deeply divided factions can come up with about $6 billion to cover a one-year extension. Senate Democrats want to offset the cost by closing a tax loophole for high-income owners of privately owned corporations. Both proposals appear dead on arrival in the opposite chamber. If the two sides can’t come to a deal, some 7 million students face a doubling of interest rates from 3.4 to 6.8 percent in July.
Boehner said Sunday that despite the divisions, “We’ll have this issue resolved.”
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.