By Peter Schroeder - 06/04/14 03:40 PM EDT
Senate Democrats are preparing a populist push next week, when they bring up legislation that would enable borrowers to refinance their student loans.
The bill would help the pocketbooks of those Americans struggling with some portion of the $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loans by letting them take advantage of lower interest rates. But Democrats on Wednesday were also quick to broaden the debate ahead of the midterm election.
“Do we invest in billionaires who’ve already made it, or in young women who are trying to build a future?” she said. “It’s time to pass this bill and give all our young people a fair shot at an affordable education.”
Democrats are returning to the issue of student loans ahead of the midterm elections, the latest populist measure in what they are billing the “fair shot” agenda. Democrats have previously pushed legislation that would raise the minimum wage or establish equal pay for women. Those measures though stalled against Republican opposition.
Wednesday saw a heavy focus on student loans from Senate Democrats. In addition to the press conference touting the bill, two separate committees held hearings on the problems of growing student loan debt, which now is the largest type of consumer debt in the country.
The new student loan bill is likely to be met by a GOP blockade, given that the $51 billion price tag of the refinancing would be covered by enacting the “Buffett Rule,” which would ensure millionaires pay a minimum level of tax.
The Congressional Budget Office determined Wednesday that that tax boost would more than cover the cost of the bill, but Republicans have repeatedly resisted efforts to put the rule in place in the past.
Democrats say they are willing to discuss other ways to pay for the bill, but made it clear they believe they are on the right side of this issue.
“Republicans, at their peril, would stop this bill from going forward,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee.
She and other senators said they have been overwhelmed with stories from constituents struggling with student loan debt.
“It’s a reaction of, ‘Oh my Gosh, yes! You’re finally addressing something that’s really important to me,’ ” added Murray.
The bill would be a boon to younger voters that Democrats hope to energize for the midterm election. A previous press conference touting the bill saw Democratic senators flanked by college students and graduates who told their stories of gargantuan debt burdens.
But Wednesday’s event was also squarely targeted at another important election demographic: women. All seven Democratic senators who spoke at Wednesday’s press conference were women, and they emphasized that student loan debt impacts women disproportionately, since they on average make less than men.
“They’re hit by a double whammy,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.). “Because you’re paid less, you actually have less money to pay off your bills, including your student loans ... This is a deterrent to be able to start a life, to be able to start a business, to be able to start a family.”
“They deserve to be treated equally with any male, so it’s time for us to step up to the plate on these issues,” added Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
Republicans have been largely mum on the student loan bill, but a few keyed in on the program’s costs at a Senate Budget Committee hearing earlier in the day — highlighting that the “Buffett Rule” pay-for is already a non-starter.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) argued that providing student loan debt relief with federal funds is just “shifting our debt burden from those who incurred that debt to all of our kids and grandkids.”
“How does that not hamper our economy, not hamper our entrepreneurship?” he asked.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) also focused on the cost of such a program at the hearing.