Reconciliation still possible for stalled education reform bill

Senate Democrats could still attempt to pass their robust student lending overhaul using a 51-vote budget maneuver called reconciliation.

Typically, lawmakers can only invoke the process to pass one piece of deficit-reducing legislation every year. While Democrats remain poised to reserve that channel as a last resort for their stalled healthcare reforms, top Democratic aides close to the process told The Hill on Thursday the higher education bill, too, is still a candidate.

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Basically, Democratic leaders could combine both their healthcare reforms and their student lending rules into one measure for consideration, and then pass the resulting package using reconciliation, those aides said.

However, it remains unclear whether such a move would improve the education bill's chances, a version of which passed the House last September.

Among other things, the legislation -- spearheaded in the Senate by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) -- would eliminate private lenders from the federal lending market. But that reform -- which could save the federal government about $87 billion over 10 years -- has hardly satisfied lawmakers who reside in states that are also homes to the private loan companies themselves.

Many of these Democrats, in particular, fear the exclusion of private companies from the federal lending program could result in lost jobs and investment within their constituencies -- a concern only magnified in political impact by this year's looming midterm elections.

Already, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) -- who represents a state that is home to the sizable Nelnet loan company -- has signaled he would opposite such a reform on those grounds.

Other Democrats, including Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu and Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey  were widely regarded last year as being on the fence or otherwise opposed to other parts of the bill.

And Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) have each expressed some concern with some of the bill's components in letters this week. However, it is not immediately clear whether they would actively oppose the entire reform.

Their perspectives could change when Harkin, the bill's sponsor, unveils a draft in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee later this year. But without their support, even the 51-vote reconciliation process could prove an exceptionally difficult hurdle for Democrats to overcome.

Nevertheless, Senate Democratic leaders have not yet reached a final decision on how to proceed with the student lending overhaul, mostly because they are still uncertain of how to pass healthcare reform.