By Alexander Bolton - 06/23/12 10:00 AM EDT
President Obama on Saturday stepped up his campaign against Congress and urged lawmakers to pass a multi-year transportation bill and legislation to subsidize college student loans.
Federal transportation funding and student loan subsidies are scheduled to expire at the end of the month.
“There’s no excuse for inaction,” he said. “Right now, we are seven days away from thousands of American workers having to walk off the job because Congress hasn’t passed a transportation bill.
“We are eight days away from nearly seven and a half million students seeing their loan rates double because Congress hasn’t acted to stop it,” he added.
Deals on both measures appear to be in the works next week, as lawmakers on both sides expressed hope they were nearing a deal.
But tensions between Obama and the Republican House are growing with the standoff over Attorney General Eric Holder’s refusal to hand over certain documents related to the controversial Fast and Furious gun-tracking operation.
Obama on Wednesday asserted executive privilege to prevent the release of the documents, and the House is expected to vote next week to place Holder in contempt of Congress.
The move by Obama underlines a political strategy of running against the House GOP, which he hopes to tie to presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Obama has also repeatedly criticized Republicans on the student loan and transportation issues, though it is possible those measure could arrive at his desk for his signature at the end of next week.
Reid on Thursday sounded optimistic about the likelihood of a deal and predicted a short-term extension would not be needed.
Boehner told reporters “clearly there’s some movement” in the transportation talks.
A senior congressional aide said Friday that Senate Democratic and House Republican leaders are expected to announce an agreement on student loan legislation next week.
Reid has proposed reforms to employer pension payment contributions and changing contributions to the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation to pay for the roughly $6 billion cost of the student loan bill. Republican leaders are expected to accept these proposals and Democrats are expected to agree to one of the pay-fors floated by Republicans.
The Senate passed a two-year, $109 billion transportation authorization bill in March but it has stalled in negotiations between the Senate and House.
The interest rate for Stafford student loans will soon double to 6.8 percent unless Congress renews subsidies.
The House passed student loan legislation in April that would cut nearly $6 billion from a preventative healthcare fund set up by the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Obama has threatened to veto that bill.
The Senate failed to reach agreement on keeping loans at current rates.
“Right now, the unemployment rate for Americans with a college degree or more is about half the national average. Their incomes are twice as high as those who don’t have a high school diploma,” Obama said. “So, if we know that a higher education is the clearest path to the middle class, why would we make it harder to achieve?”
Obama said authorization of transportation funds would provide an important economic boost and noted that on Friday his administration announced $500 million in competitive grants for road repair, port renovation and other projects.
The president praised the Senate for passing a bipartisan transportation bill in March that was supported by 22 Republicans.
“Now, it’s up to the House to follow suit; to put aside partisan posturing, end the gridlock, and do what’s right for the American people,” he said. “It’s not lost on any of us that this is an election year. But we’ve got responsibilities that are bigger than an election.”
Tensions have flared between the House and Senate over both measures.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) recently accused House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) of deliberately stalling the transportation bill to slow the economy and boost Republican political prospects.
“Cantor, of course — I’m told by others that he wants to not do a bill and make the economy worse because he feels that’s better for them,” Reid said. “I hope that that’s not true.”
His claims drew strong denunciations from aides to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Cantor.