Congress revisits fight over student loans

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Congress this week will revisit the debate over how to prevent interest rates on student loans from skyrocketing this summer, an issue that President Obama has been using for weeks to attack Republicans and rally college-age voters to his re-election campaign.

As recently as Friday, Obama was telling Virginia high school students to tweet, call and email their U.S. senators and urge them to pass a Democratic bill that would prevent Stafford loan interest rates from doubling on July 1. If the rate jumps, he warned, students will pay an average of $1,000 more a year.

"I want to give you some relief from that debt," Obama said, promoting a Twitter hashtag the White House created to promote the issue, #Don'tDoubleMyRate.

The legislation, scheduled for a vote Tuesday, would extend the current 3.4 percent rate for one year. But the Democratic measure is not likely to win much Republican support because it would recoup the $6 billion in lost revenues by raising payroll taxes on some small businesses.

Republicans insist they want to prevent the interest rate increase, but to make up for the lost revenue they proposed taking the money from a fund that is part of Obama's health care reform plan. They accused Obama of playing politics with the issue.

The president has been hitting the issue of college costs repeatedly over the past month, starting with a tour of college campuses in three battleground states. With Congress yet to reach a compromise between the Republican and Democratic plans, he is expected to revisit the issue at several other events next week.

"Note that the administration has events on it all week, even though the vote is Tuesday," said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

The Republican-led House last month approved a bill that would avoid the interest rate increase and pay for it by shifting funds away from health care reforms despite Democratic opposition and Obama's threat to veto the measure.

Political strategists say they feel certain the two sides will find a compromise because both parties would be hurt politically by an increase in the interest rate.

But neither side appears to be budging.

"The House passed a reasonable and responsible bill that helps students and protects taxpayers," said Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "We'll be happy to talk with our Senate counterparts if they're able to pass a bill with a different offset."

Some political insiders say the Republicans are more likely to bend on the issue because Obama has been so successful in defining the fight to the young voters as the fault of Republicans.

"Obama is winning the message battle so I don't the Democrats will give in on this," said Democratic strategist Brendan Daly, a former top aide to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Voters between 18 and 29 made up nearly 20 percent of the vote in the 2008 presidential election and Obama won them by nearly a 2-to-1 margin over Republican Sen. John McCain. But polls now show the president's support has since slipped among young voters. He remains popular with college-age voters, polls show, but they are less likely to vote this year than four years ago.

sferrechio@washingtonexaminer.com

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