Mitt Romney lurched ever closer to the political center Monday, in a move that presages both dramatic implications on Capitol Hill and growing tensions between Romney and his GOP allies in Congress.
We’ve seen several signs that Romney is recalibrating for the general election in recent weeks — he tacitly backed Democrats’ equal-pay law and now articulates more widely his support for the principle behind the DREAM Act. But for the first time Monday, he waded into an ongoing legislative battle — over student loans — and sided with President Obama and the Democrats against House and Senate Republicans.
“I fully support the effort to extend the low interest rate on student loans,” Romney said during a televised town hall appearance. Without congressional action, student loan interest rates are set to double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent in July, placing a heavier burden on some 7 million students across the country.
Obama has embarked on a push to freeze the existing levels, at a cost of $6 billion per year. House Education & Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, the GOP’s point man on the issue, on Friday attacked Obama’s proposal as “[b]ad policy based on lofty campaign promises.” Klein added that he has “serious concerns” with Obama’s plan, framing the issue this way: “We must now choose between allowing interest rates to rise or piling billions of dollars on the backs of taxpayers.”
That same criticism now applies to Romney, who unequivocally signed on to Obama’s plan.
At a background briefing for reporters Monday, senior administration officials applauded Romney’s postion, but noted that his newfound support for extending the low interest rates conflicts with his support for the GOP budget, which allows the rates to spike automatically.
But House Republicans aren’t quite ready to address the rift, and instead are hoping that they can paper over the intra-party divide by attacking Obama.
“Chairman Kline and Governor Romney both agree the president’s failed leadership over the economy has left one out of every two college graduates struggling to find a job,” Kline’s spokeswoman Alexandra Sollberger told TPM. She criticized Obama’s “reckless policies” and said Kline will “continue to work with his colleagues in an effort to find a responsible solution that protects the interests of borrowers and taxpayers.”
House GOP leaders also resisted addressing the division Monday. Speaker John Boehner’s spokesman Michael Steel reminded TPM that it was Democrats who passed the 2007 law that sunsets the low interest rate this July, which has now created a “serious problem for students and their families.” Majority Leader Eric Cantor highlighted a new study revealing that half of all recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed, and said in a statement that Obama’s policies are making the problem worse.
Underlying the issue of student loans is a battle for young voters, who played a key role in propelling Obama to victory in 2008. His re-election team is working to fire that engine back up. Romney made a play for the youth vote Monday, calling on young Americans to vote for him if they are unhappy with the state of the economy.
More broadly, Romney’s pivot could influence upstream legislative battles where House Republicans are expected to take positions outside the mainstream — including a looming fight over how to fund the government beyond September. More symbolic battles over the safety-net and immigration could also pit Romney against the hard-right House GOP. In those situations the Republican nominee, in an effort to protect his chances in November, could unwittingly become Obama’s most powerful weapon against House Republicans, and throw the GOP into disarray.
So far the Obama campaign isn’t using the ex-governor’s support against the GOP, instead opting to highlight other ways Obama would better serve young people. But Romney’s pivots all serve as ammunition for the president to marginalize Republicans with a simple but compelling refrain: “Even the Republican presidential nominee supports my position over theirs.”
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.