By Mike Lillis - 04/26/12 04:49 PM EDT
House Democratic leaders will whip their caucus against a GOP bill to extend a student loan benefit to millions of college undergrads, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday.
Although Democrats have championed the lower loan rate, Pelosi said the Republicans' plan to offset the $5.9 billion cost by cutting preventative healthcare funding would "rob" the same people it's designed to help.
Cuts to programs providing immunizations, birth defect treatments, and breast and cervical cancer screenings, Pelosi said, constitutes an “assault on women's health” that Democrats won't back.
At issue is a five-year-old law that halved the interest rate on Stafford loans from 3.4 to 6.8 percent, providing thousands of dollars in benefits to each of the more than 7 million low- and middle-income college students enrolled in the program. Initiated by congressional Democrats, the law was enacted by President George W. Bush in 2007.
The law expires on July 1, meaning the interest rate will jump back to 6.8 percent without congressional action.
In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama called on Congress to extend the lower rate another year, and he has taken that message on the road this week in talk show appearances and university speeches.
Obama and the Democrats, returning to the theme that won them the payroll tax fight in December, are trying to paint Republicans as defenders of the wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle class.
"If they think that it's a good economic measure — fiscal measure — to stop immunization because it's largely for poor children, that's really very harmful to the health of all of our children," Pelosi said Thursday.
The issue has put Republicans in a pickle, as GOP leaders have championed legislation this year to solidify the 6.8 percent rate — legislation House Republicans approved in March and again just last week.
But with momentum building behind the Democrats' one-year fix, and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney endorsing a temporary extension of the lower rate, GOP leaders changed course on Wednesday, introducing legislation to keep the 3.4 percent rate an additional year.
The GOP bill would cover the $5.9 billion tab by dipping into a preventive care fund created by the 2010 healthcare reform law — a program Republicans have long- characterized as a "slush fund."
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) noted Thursday that Obama and Democratic leaders have already backed legislation that cut roughly a third of the preventive fund.
"We’ve already taken $4 billion out of this fund. It was used to help pay for the payroll tax credit," Boehner told reporters in the Capitol. "Many Democrats voted for it. The president signed it into law. I think they’ve made clear the precedent is there. They don’t believe this money is essential to their program. That’s why it’s being paid for here.”
The White House is pushing back, saying healthcare cuts are no way to offset education programs.
"We should be able to work together to find offsets that don’t penalize middle-class families or undermine efforts to help more Americans stay healthy," White House spokesman Nick Papas said Wednesday in a statement.
Democrats have also rejected the "slush fund" characterization, arguing that funding preventive healthcare pays dividends by creating a healthier country.
"They consider it a slush fund to pay for people's health," Pelosi said. "We consider it an absolute necessity, and that's the difference here."
Democrats have introduced offset provisions to their student loan bills no less controversial. The Senate bill, sponsored by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), would hike taxes on certain small businesses, while the House bill, sponsored by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), would eliminate tax breaks for oil and gas companies — strategies that have been squarely rejected by Republicans.
The Republican student loan bill is slated for a vote on the House floor Friday.
— Russell Berman contributed.