By Molly K. Hooper, Mike Lillis and Amie Parnes - 04/26/12 12:41 AM EDT
An electoral battle between President Obama and Republicans over young voters escalated Wednesday when Speaker John Boehner scheduled a Friday vote to stop interest rates on student loans from doubling this summer.
Boehner (R-Ohio) coupled the vote with an attack on Obama’s healthcare law, announcing he would pay the $5.9 billion cost of extending the loans with funds from what he called a healthcare “slush fund” set up for preventive care.
The Speaker’s surprise move is a GOP push against Obama’s efforts to lock up student voters, a constituency that was vital to his 2008 election.
Boehner made his announcement during a hastily called press conference just hours after Obama named the Speaker as a chief impediment to the Democrats’ plan to keep the loan benefit from expiring.
The vote would give some cover to Republicans, who have been hammered by Obama this week over the issue, while taking a cut at the president on healthcare.
Taking funds from the preventative healthcare fund ensures the law will not make it to Obama’s desk, but it is likely to get through the House and would give Republicans leverage in a final fight with Democrats over extending the loan rates that is likely to center on how to pay for its cost.
The decision to move the student loan measure was so last-minute that GOP lawmakers filing onto the House floor for a vote at 4:45 p.m. had no idea that a student loan bill was even under consideration.
“What student loan bill?,” lawmaker after lawmaker answered when asked to respond to Boehner’s late-breaking decision.
Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, said the decision was made by GOP leaders on Wednesday.
Kline said he has spent months working on a long-term solution, but conceded to a temporary fix when it became evident such a plan wouldn’t be likely to pass in the current political environment.
“The feeling was, with the actions that the Democrats have taken, that there’s not going to be time to work through the better solutions, so this is an interim fix,” Kline said in an interview.
At issue is a 2007 law that halved the interest rate on federal Stafford loans to 3.4 percent. While pushed by Democrats in control of the House and Senate, 77 House Republicans and 35 Senate Republicans supported the bill, which then-President George W. Bush signed into law.
The GOP proposal comes less than a month after Republican leaders passed their 2013 budget, which left the rate at 6.8 percent.
The politics on the issue were turned up this week by Obama, who with a Rolling Stone interview, an appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night talk show and visits to three college campuses is making a heavy push to retain young voters.
Appearing at the University of Iowa Wednesday, Obama took a swipe at Boehner for suggesting the president is wasting time campaigning on the loan benefit in order to “distract people from the economy.”
“These guys don’t get it — this is the economy,” a pugnacious Obama said to an eruption of cheers from the audience. “This is the economy. This is about your job security. This is about your future. If you do well, the economy does well. … You are the economy.”
Boehner didn’t overlook the jab, blasting Obama Wednesday for picking fights out of thin air.
“This week the president is campaigning and trying to invent a fight where there is none and never has been on this issue of student loans,” Boehner said. “We can, and will, fix the problem — without a bunch of campaign-style theatrics.”
Democrats have offered their own politically motivated ways to pay for extending the low interest rates on the student loans.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) introduced an offset that would require shareholders in S-corporations — typically small-sized businesses — to pay payroll taxes from which they’re now exempt.
Rep. George Miller (Calif.), the senior Democrat on the House Education Committee, introduced legislation Wednesday that would cover the $5.9 billion cost by eliminating tax breaks for the oil-and-gas industries.
Reid’s proposal was immediately rejected by GOP leaders.
“Let’s be honest,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said. “The only reason Democrats have proposed this particular solution to the problem is to get Republicans to oppose it, to make us cast a vote they think will make us look bad to the voters they need to win the next election.”
Democrats, for their part, are already bashing Boehner and the Republicans for their offset proposal to cut preventive services from the healthcare reform law.
“If they were really serious they wouldn’t have proposed to help students by hurting other middle-class Americans,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said Wednesday in a statement. “They are yet again asking working families to pay the price instead of closing tax loopholes that benefit special interests."
— Updated at 8:41 p.m.