Leaders say Congress close to deal on student loans and transportation bills

Congressional leaders on Tuesday moved closer to passing two high-profile bills in what could be the final burst of major legislative activity before the 2012 elections.

Senate leaders announced a deal to extend federal subsidies for college loans and floated the possibility of attaching the language to a multiyear transportation authorization measure.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters that he is confident the student loan legislation will pass while pegging the chances of the highway bill at better than 50-50. 

Both Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) signaled they are open to combining the bills into one package. They also cautioned that the GOP-led House, where the politics are more delicate on these issues, would have to sign off as well.

The boomlet of activity comes a week after the Senate passed a multiyear farm bill. Earlier this year, the House and Senate cleared legislation on helping start-up businesses, banning insider trading for lawmakers and reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank. Perhaps not coincidentally, approval ratings for Congress have hit 20 percent — more than double what they were during 2011, a year of multiple partisan showdowns.

The emerging dynamic is that Senate Republicans are increasingly eager to show they can work with Democrats, which hampers President Obama’s strategy of running against congressional obstructionism. 

McConnell touted the bipartisanship on Tuesday: “I think the Senate the last couple of months is beginning to operate like it used to … I think that’s a big step in the right direction for the institution.”

Reid said the student loan issue is “worked out. The next question is, what do we put it on to make sure we can complete it?”

The White House touted the Senate deal and pressed Congress to “send a bill to the president as soon as possible.”

The bill would extend federal subsidies for college student loans. Without congressional action, the rate on loans will double from 3.4 to 6.8 percent. The dispute on the legislative effort is how to offset its nearly $6 billion price tag. It is expected the 3.4 percent rate would be extended for one year. 

An aide with knowledge of the student loan talks said Senate Republicans will accept Reid’s proposal to raise funds by changing rules for private pension plans and increasing the premiums employers pay for insurance from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. Democrats have accepted a GOP proposal to limit to subsidies to six years for a traditional four-year degree and three years for a two-year degree, according to another source. 

Speaking from the Senate floor earlier in the day, Reid said it is up to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to persuade his conference to support the roughly $109-billion transportation bill.

“I think the chances today are better than 50-50 that we can get a bill done,” he said. “But we’re still looking at Speaker Boehner to help us get that over the finish line.” 

Some conservatives in the House believe the federal government should stay out of the student loan market, no matter how the costs are offset.

Boehner’s hand was forced by pressure from the White House, congressional Democrats and the presumptive 2012 Republican nominee. The House-passed budget blueprint called for the rates to return to 6.8 percent, but after Romney embraced the 3.4 percent level, Boehner moved such a bill through the lower chamber.

Getting a highway bill done will be more challenging. 

The Senate voted 74-22 in March to pass a two-year transportation measure, and many Senate Republicans are eager to get a deal this week. 

“Sen. McConnell is determined to get it done, and we recognize how important it is,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). “It’s been a pending issue for far too long. It’s long overdue.” 

McConnell said Tuesday that putting Congress back on a productive track would help get things done next year, when Republicans could control the White House and Senate, as well as the House.

“I think it’s been a pretty good few months for the Senate from an institutional point of view, and that will really benefit, I think, no matter who’s in the majority next year,” he said. 

McConnell stopped short of claiming a final deal on the student loan bill. The minority leader was stung in December when he negotiated a two-month extension of the payroll tax holiday, fully expecting it would pass the House, and was taken by surprise when Tea Party-affiliated House freshmen revolted.

Reid said there would have to be an agreement on the transportation bill by Wednesday to pass it before Congress leaves for the weeklong July 4 recess. 

The highway bill would have to be posted publicly by midnight Wednesday to meet the House’s three-day rule to give lawmakers enough time to review it before a Friday vote. 

An aide familiar with the negotiations said a final agreement is being held up by demands from House Republicans to link it to expedited approval of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline and legislation loosening restrictions on coal ash. 

Reid might agree to guaranteeing Republicans another round of votes on the Keystone XL pipeline, but he has staunchly refused to include its authorization. The Keystone language is not expected to be in the final bill, but Republicans will use the issue on the campaign trail this fall. 

A Senate Republican aide minimized the differences as “odds and ends.”

The transportation authorization law will lapse at the end of the month. Boehner has said he will send a six-month extension if negotiators fail to reach an accord. 

The Senate would likely pass whatever short-term transportation extension it received from the House, said a senior Senate Republican aide. It would be the 10th stopgap measure passed since the last multiyear transportation bill expired. 

Transportation advocates have argued that an extension would be a death knell for transportation funding because the Congressional Budget Office has projected the fund will go bankrupt in 2013 without any additional sources of revenue. Both the House’s and Senate’s proposals for a new transportation bill call for spending about $13 billion more annually than the $36 billion brought in per year by the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax.  

— Bernie Becker and Keith Laing contributed to this report.