Student loan bill passes House, heads to Obama

The House on Wednesday approved legislation that would lower interest rates on federally backed student loans. 

The vote ended a months-long fight with the Senate and sent the legislation to the White House. President Obama has said he would sign the bill. 

Members passed the Senate-approved Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act, H.R. 1911, in a 392-31 vote. Only six Republicans and about two dozen Democrats voted against it.

Under the legislation approved by Congress, the rate for most student loans would be set at the 10-year Treasury note plus 2.05 percent, and it would be capped at 8.25 percent. 

Passage ends a debate over the federal government's control over student loan rates that started in 2007, when the Democratic Congress lowered the rate from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent. That reduction was temporary, however, and in the last few years, Congress has had to wrestle with how to extend the low rate and how to pay for it.

Earlier this year, House Republicans and President Obama agreed generally that student loan rates should be based on government borrowing rates. While they agreed on a basic structure, they differed on the details — Obama proposed a rate equal to the 10-year Treasury note plus 0.9 percent, and House Republicans proposed adding 2.5 percent to the 10-year note.

Still, the House was able to pass a bill that Republicans could say was based on a similar structure. They sent the bill to the Senate in May and asked senators to add their own modifications.

Instead, Senate Democrats argued that the bill was unworkable, and it failed to advance, fueled in part by a veto threat from President Obama. The Senate was ultimately unable to pass anything in time for the July 1 deadline, which allowed the rate to double from 3.4 to 6.8 percent.

But after returning from the July 4 break, a bipartisan group of senators led by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Angus King (I-Maine) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) were able to use the structure of the House bill to reach an agreement.

In House debate today, Democrats argued that the Senate version was a dramatic improvement over the House bill, which set the rate at the 10-year note plus 2.5 percent. Democrats argued the Senate bill sets rates that are fixed at the time loans are dispersed. The House bill called for variable rates, although it also allowed students to consolidate their loans after graduation into a fixed rate.

"The rates that they were touting back on May 23 were an illusion," Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) said Wednesday. "They were not what the rate was that the student actually was going to be paying."

House Education and the Workforce Committee ranking member George Miller (D-Calif.) agreed. "It was worth the wait," he said of the Senate bill.

Republicans, who spent weeks mocking Democrats for rejecting the House bill out of hand, noted that the final agreed bill was ultimately very similar to the House version and could have been agreed earlier.

"After many weeks of delay, I am pleased we finally have a bipartisan agreement to address the student loan interest rate problem," Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) said. "Reports confirm the similarities between the House bill and its Senate companion," he added, noting press reports calling the bill "very similar," and that the differences are "relatively small."