House Speaker John Boehner accused President Barack Obama of concocting a “fake fight” over student-loan interest rates as Democrats said the Republican plan to freeze the rate robs money from women’s health programs.
The partisan bickering broke out as the House prepared to debate legislation that Republican leaders rushed to the floor to try to seize the initiative on the issue and blunt Obama’s re-election pitch for the youth vote.
House Republicans’ legislation, to be voted on tomorrow, would extend for another year the 3.4 percent interest rate on college student loans. Unless Congress acts by July 1, the rate will rise to 6.8 percent. Senate Democrats and Republicans are offering competing plans for freezing the interest rate.
Boehner, insisting that Republicans intended all along to avert the rate increase, told reporters it was “pathetic” for Obama “to make a campaign issue out of this” and travel to campuses in three battleground states to “try to make this a political issue.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters today that she would urge fellow Democrats to vote against the Republican measure because it would be financed by eliminating child immunizations, cervical-cancer screenings and other disease prevention programs.
Republicans would pay for freezing the interest rate by waging “another assault on women’s health,” said Pelosi of California.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters today he was “very disappointed” with the House proposal. Reducing funds for preventive health care “doesn’t sound like a good deal to me,” the Nevada Democrat said.
Obama and Mitt Romney, who declared himself the Republican presidential nominee after sweeping five primary contests on April 24, are vying for the youth vote in a race that pollsters project will be close.
The former Massachusetts governor joined Obama in urging lawmakers to freeze interest rates students pay for the government loans while blaming him for an economy in which “50 percent of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed.”
Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said Obama’s campaign should reimburse the Treasury for his trips to the college campuses.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said, “We assiduously follow all the rules” on the cost of presidential trips.
Senate Democrats and the White House are seeking to pay the $6 billion cost of a one-year interest-rate freeze by limiting a tax provision that allows some owners of so-called S- corporations to avoid paying Medicare payroll taxes on their earnings.
“We believe there’s an easy solution,” Reid said. “We can pay for this with a tax that people who make a lot of money have been avoiding for a long time.”
Obama, 50, told students in Iowa City, Iowa, yesterday that he and first lady Michelle Obama were paying off student loans as recently as eight years ago. “We’ve been in your shoes,” he said at the University of Iowa. “We can’t price the middle class out of an education.”
A Senate plan modeled on Obama’s rate-freeze proposal will come up for a vote in May after the Senate returns from next week’s recess, a Senate Democratic leadership aide said.
“We and the president are going to keep up the pressure on this issue,” Charles Schumer of New York, the Senate’s third- ranking Democrat, told reporters today. He said Republicans are “still battling this student loan bill. They’re just doing it in a stealthy way.”
Boehner announced the new legislation yesterday at a news conference that was called 10 minutes before he appeared at the podium.
“I know this issue well,” Boehner said. “It took me seven years to work my way through college, working every job I could get my hands on.”
Boehner said the $6 billion cost of preserving the 3.4 percent rate for an additional year would be financed under his proposal from a disease prevention and public-health fund in the health-care overhaul law Congress passed in 2010 when Democrats were in the majority.
Boehner derided that source as one of the “slush funds” in the health-care measure. The Republican bill would rescind the remaining $11.9 billion from the fund and use $5.9 billion to freeze loan interest rates for a year. The rest would be used for deficit reduction.
Boehner rejected a reporter’s suggestion that he was joining Obama to try to get the youth vote. “Please, this issue is not a partisan issue” because “no one here expected that interest rates were going to go up in July,” he said.
The House bill is H.R. 4628.
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