Senate Republicans’ Tuesday filibuster of a Democratic bill to avert a student loan interest rate hike signals a return to familiar territory for the party. The move comes after a brief detour that spurred speculation about whether, with the general election in full swing, Republicans were ready to ease up when it comes to blocking hot-button issues.
The context is an effort by the GOP — and its presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney — to save face with key voting constituencies that strongly favor Democrats and could swing the election: women, young voters and Hispanics.
Two weeks ago, Republicans found themselves in a political bind as Senate Democrats advanced a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act that included new protections. They ultimately opted not to filibuster, and the bill easily passed. Republicans were given a chance to vote on their alternative VAWA legislation, and didn’t hold up the Democrats’ version.
As recently as Monday the Capitol rumbled with rumors that Senate Republican leaders would follow the same playbook with the student-loan measure — which President Obama’s re-election campaign is seizing on to energize young voters — and potentially let Democrats advance it. But the GOP’s position quickly hardened and it didn’t happen. Tuesday’s party-line 52-45 vote fell short of the 60 needed to overcome the GOP’s filibuster.
A Senate Republican leadership aide denied any change of heart on strategy. “Those rumblings didn’t come from here,” the aide said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said Republicans want to extend the low interest rates but differ on how to pay for it. He called the issue a “manufactured controversy” and said the two sides should negotiate an offset before moving the bill. But that didn’t stop Democrats from portraying the GOP as putting their own right flank above the interests of young students.
“All signs suggest they really don’t care to stop the rate hike on students,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the Democratic Party’s top message man. “Republicans’ own budget, the Ryan budget that they passed, let the student loan rates double. They all voted for it. And now, they’ve blocked us from even debating to stop the rate hike. Republicans say they have a good-faith dispute just over how to pay for the bill, but that doesn’t even pass the laugh test.”
It’s unclear where the cause goes next in the Senate, and any measure that emerges will have to be reconciled with a partisan House-passed version, which the GOP chose to pay for by eliminating the health care reform law’s prevention fund, and thus faces fierce Democratic opposition and a White House veto threat.
A Democratic leadership aide said Republicans offered “[n]o real explanation other than what they’ve said publicly” for why they prevented debate. “Next step is to work out a compromise but Republicans blocking the bill today is not a productive step toward that goal.”
The immediate political upshot for Republicans is to appease conservatives who don’t want to prevent a Stafford loan rate hike and who are hungry for confrontation with Democrats. And it allows House Republicans to resort to the common, but typically unsuccessful tactic of trying to jam Democrats with their own contentious measure. But that comes at a potentially high price. Until the dispute is resolved, Obama and Democrats will hammer away at the issue in an effort to motivate young voters.
“Republicans are using this offset as an excuse to disguise their utter disinterest in stopping this rise on student loan rates,” Schumer said. “Their motto over the last year and a half has been ‘obstruction without fingerprints.’ But over the last six months it’s not worked. And their fingerprints are obvious as the sun is in the sky.”
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.