Obama: Student loan rates a 'no-brainer'

President Obama on Thursday accused congressional Republicans of stalling on legislation that would prevent student loan rates from doubling and urged them to “get to work.”

With less than a month to go before federally subsidized student loan rates double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent, Obama said lawmakers “can’t just sit on their hands.”

“My message is Congress is simple: ‘Let’s get back to work,’” Obama said at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. “How many people can afford to pay an extra 1,000 dollars if you’re a student just because Congress can’t get its act together?”

“That makes no sense,” he added. “This is a no-brainer … this is not complicated.”

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Obama has tried to position himself as a champion of the lower student loan rates in visits to college campuses while trying to energize an age group that helped him win the White House in 2008.   

"I know this is an election year. That's not lost on me,” Obama said. “But at this make or break moment for America's middle class, we can't afford to have Congress take five months off.”

House Republicans passed their own version of student loan legislation last month over a presidential veto threat. And GOP leaders in both chambers have sent Obama two different proposals to pay for the $6 billion price tag for extending the lower loan rates.  

Republicans believe they have secured an advantage in the debate over loans because the White House has failed to respond to the two proposals. They accuse the president of campaigning on the issue so he can point to Congress for delaying action. 

“One can only surmise that he’s delaying a solution so that he can fit in a few more campaign rallies with college students while pretending someone other than himself is delaying action,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a floor speech on Thursday.

“The President can only deny reality for so long,” added Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Boehner. “If the clock runs out, it will be with three solutions — pulled from his own budget — sitting on the President’s desk.”

A GOP aide, referring to the three options provided Obama, put it this way: “He’s not just holding the hot potato right now, he’s holding three of them.”

Asked why Obama hadn't responded to the GOP letter as of Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney replied that  the president’s events are pushing Congress toward action. 

"We're working with Congress to get this done, and we believe it will get done, because as has consistently been the case, when the president speaks about an issue like this that affects millions of Americans, that's important to millions of Americans, and he brings that conversation to the American people around the country, it has forced Congress to act. Doing that has forced Congress to act,” Carney said.

During his speech on Thursday, Obama gave his take on why the bill has stalled.

“Last month Democrats in the Senate put forward a plan that would have kept these low rates in place, wouldn’t have added a dime to the deficit,” he said. “The Senate Republicans got together, they blocked it. They said no.

“House Republicans voted to keep your rates down only if we agreed to cut things like preventative health care for women,” Obama added to booing from crowd. “That’s not a smart thing to do.”

Senior administration officials maintain they are the ones with a leg up in the fight over student loans. Weeks ago, as Obama launched a cross-country tour to tout the rate extension, officials said they were met with opposition from Republicans.

Since then, administration officials say, lawmakers have shown some movement and will likely advance the plan — albeit after some political theater — in the 11th hour.

On Wednesday, as Obama prepared to head to swing state Nevada to pressure Congress to act on student loans, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) sent a letter to the president blasting him for not responding to their offers.

“With all of the great economic challenges facing our country, there is no reason to manufacture political fights where there is no policy disagreement,” Boehner and Cantor wrote. “That’s why we cannot understand why you, without having responded to our latest offer, would schedule a campaign-style event in Nevada tomorrow to discuss student loan rates.”

Democrats and Republicans on the sidelines of the fight predicted that both sides would come together in the end.

“It will be done. … It’s an issue that’s toxic on a bipartisan basis if it’s not resolved,” said one former White House official. “There are some things that need to happen; this is one of them.”

“It’s in the interest of both sides to compromise,” added Steve Elmendorf, a lobbyist who worked on Capitol Hill for years. He said that, while the White House has had a good job messaging on the issue, there would be no winners when all is said and done.

“I don’t think this issue will be remembered at all in November,” Elmendorf said. 

Still, Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, predicted Obama would have the upper hand in the debate.

“The simple message is always best,” Jillson said. “Obama is saying I don’t want these rates to rise and I will fight to see they don’t … while Republicans are saying, ‘We don’t want the rates to rise, but if they don’t we would have to offset the cost and it would be really, really hard.” 

“[It’s] a rare win for Obama,” he said.