Six Dems push party to rethink student lending bill

Six Democrats signaled deep concerns with their chamber's student lending reform bill on Tuesday, imploring party leaders to "consider potential alternative legislative proposals" in the coming days.

That could spell trouble for Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and other Democratic leaders, who once hoped to advance the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act to the president's desk using the chamber's 50-vote reconciliation process.

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In a brief letter dated Tuesday, Democratic Sens. Bill Nelson (Fl.), Tom Carper (Del.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Jim Webb (Va.), Mark Warner (Va.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.) describe reform to the country's "higher education funding" system as a "priority."

But the group of centrist Democrats also express concerns the Senate's lending bill could ultimately result in local job loss.

Many of those lawmakers represent states that are also homes to student lenders, which employ some of their constituents. Consequently, they fear the Senate's forthcoming student lending bill -- which would remove private lenders from the federal loan market -- could further worsen their state's unemployment situation during a critical election year.

However, sources close to the process have previously told The Hill they have long expected an uphill battle on this legislation -- even when Democrats were 60 votes strong in the Senate. Reconciliation was thus pitched as one avenue by which Democratic leaders could advance their lending legislation, which passed the House last year.

By some lawmakers' logic, the bill could produce billions in savings, qualifying it for the 50-vote budget-reduction process. But a number of snags have obstructed that path to passage -- including healthcare, which Senate Democrats now intend to pass using reconciliation.

While party leaders previously thought to combine both its healthcare and education reform packages into one reconciliation proposal, it now seems lawmakers may not have the stomach to attempt both simultaneously.

But Tuesday's letter adds yet another difficulty to the list: Democrats may not have the votes this year. If Harkin's forthcoming bill resembles the House version, and allows the federal government to lend directly to students, the six Democrats who wrote party leaders this week may not support it

Other Democrats have signaled similar concerns, calling into question whether the party can reach the 50-vote mark at all.