House takes a swing at healthcare law and extends student loan rates

The House on Friday approved a controversial bill that extends low interest rates on subsidized student loans for another year but pays for that extension by killing a piece of the 2010 healthcare law, which prompted a veto threat from President Obama before the vote.

Members approved the Interest Rate Reduction Act in a 215-195 vote, with 30 Republicans voting against the bill and 13 Democrats supporting it. The end of the vote was confusing, with a few members appearing to switch their votes before the final tally. 

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The vote is one of the rare cases in which a bill was passed without getting a true majority of the House, which is 218 votes. In this vote, 10 Republicans and 12 Democrats did not vote on the bill. 

The final tally was so narrow, due to the 30 Republicans who voted against it, that a decision by the 13 Democrats who favored it could have defeated the bill if they switched votes at the last minute.

Republicans came under some pressure ahead of the vote from conservative groups that said government should stay out of the student loan business. The Club for Growth said Friday morning it would score the legislation, meaning those voting for it would get a black mark from the organization.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) made the surprise decision to schedule the vote on the bill earlier this week as Obama was in the midst of a tour of college campuses in which he cast Republicans as opposed to extending the reduced interest rates. Young voters were a critical constituency to Obama in 2008, and the president's schedule and rhetoric this week were designed to entrench them firmly in his camp. 

Without congressional action, interest rates on federally subsidized Stafford loans would double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent in July, and Friday's vote to a degree was intended to shelter Republicans from White House fire. 

It also took a shot at Obama's healthcare law by paying for the extension with funds from a preventive care fund set up by the new law.

It was that language that prompted Obama's veto threat, and Democrats railed against it during a floor debate in which they argued it amounted to an attack on the health of women and children.

Just before the final vote, Boehner accused Democrats of picking a fight on an issue that no one disagrees with.

"Why do people insist that we have to have a political fight on something where there is no fight?" he asked. "There is absolutely no fight. People want to politicize it because it's an election year, but my God, do we have to fight about everything?

"And now, we're going to have a fight over women's health," he added. "Give me a break. This is the latest plank in the so-called war on women, entirely created by my colleagues across the aisle for political gain."

Like other Republicans, Boehner noted that Obama himself has proposed cutting the health fund in the past.

"So to accuse us of wanting to gut women's health is absolutely not true," he said. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is beneath us. This is beneath the dignity of this House, and the dignity of the public trust that we enjoy from our constituents."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the bill sets up a stark choice between affordable interest rates for students and the health of Americans.

"Imagine if we're sitting around that kitchen table as a family… and we say as a family, in order for you to go to college, we're not going to be able to immunize your little brother or sister, we're not going to be able to have preventive care in terms of screening for breast cancer, cervical cancer… for your mom, or any other preventive care for men and women in our family," Pelosi said on the House floor. "That just would be wrong."

Pelosi said the health fund provides for billions of dollars in spending for immunization, health screening and other activities that help maintain the health of Americans. She added that it should be no surprise that Republicans are attacking the health fund "because they have an ongoing assault on women's health."

Republicans rejected these claims over the last two days by citing examples of how the health fund has spent its money. Among other things, they said it has been used to build bike paths and jungle gyms, ad campaigns against junk food, free spaying and neutering for pets, and even lobbying.

The GOP also argued that Democrats were being disingenuous in their fierce defense of the fund because the president's budget called for cutting $4 billion from the program. 

One Republican noted House Democrats supported a $5 billion cut to the fund in a prior vote. 

"I guess the Democrats were in favor of raiding the slush fund before they were against it," Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) said.

More broadly, they took offense at Democratic attempts to cast the bill as a sign that Republicans are anti-woman.

"There are multiple, multiple sources of funding, of programs that can address women's needs," House Education & the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) said. "I think it is cynical to suggest that we are somehow attacking women and their health by going at the slush fund that has no control, no oversight."

Just before the vote, the White House said officials would recommend that Obama veto the bill because of the proposed elimination of the fund, which it said was "created to help prevent disease, detect it early, and manage conditions before they become severe." 

Several House Democrats declared the bill dead-on-arrival in the Senate, where Democrats have proposed a bill that pays for the interest-rate extension by ending an exemption that allows high-income earners to shield some of their income from payroll taxes.

Democrats for the past several days credited Obama with forcing Republicans to take some step toward extending the 3.4 percent interest rates for Stafford loans by calling attention to the schedule increase.

"Because the president took the issue to the American people, he made the issue too hot to handle, so the Republicans this week are doing an about-face," Pelosi said. She and other Democrats noted that the House-passed budget resolution anticipated a return to the 6.8 percent rate.

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