NEW: The House passes a Republican plan to extend lower interest rates on student loans
Democrats and Republicans differ on how to pay for the proposal
The White House says the Republican plan would hurt women
Republicans accuse Democrats of creating a fake fight over the issue
The White House said Friday that President Barack Obama would veto a Republican measure passed by the House to extend lower interest rates on federal student loans because it takes money from a health care fund that benefits women.
A White House statement said Obama’s senior advisers would recommend a veto if the House measure, which passed 215-195 on a largely party-line vote, were to win Senate approval and reach the president’s desk.
“Women, in particular, will benefit from this prevention fund, which would provide for hundreds of thousands of screenings for breast and cervical cancer,” the White House statement said. “This is a politically motivated proposal and not the serious response that the problem facing America’s college students deserves. If the president is presented with H.R. 4628, his senior advisers would recommend that he veto the bill.”
Obama favors extending the current lower interest rates on student loans but would seek a different way to pay the $6 billion cost.
A proposal by Senate Democrats would pay for the measure by ending some tax loopholes for corporations, a move opposed by Republicans. The House plan would instead take the money from the health care fund, which is part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act detested by Republicans.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, proposed the GOP’s student loan measure this week in the face of a high-profile campaign by Obama that rallied college students – a key component of the vital youth vote in November – to pressure Congress to extend the lower student loan rates.
In addition, certain Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney pinned Boehner and congressional Republicans in a corner by coming out in favor of the lower rates this week.
House Republicans previously backed a budget plan that called for letting the lower interest rates on student loans expire on July 1.
In an emotional floor speech Friday, Boehner labeled the issue a fake fight mounted by Democrats for political advantage.
“People want to politicize this because it is an election year, but my God, do we have to fight about everything?” Boehner said, at times pounding the podium. “And no, now we are going to have a fight over women’s health. Give me a break! This is the latest plank in the so-called war on women entirely created by colleagues across the aisle for political gain.”
Calling for a review of “the facts,” Boehner said Obama’s proposed budget called for reducing the same health care fund, which he labeled a “slush fund.”
“You may have already forgotten that several months ago, you all voted to cut $4 billion out of this slush fund to pay for the payroll credit bill” that extended a payroll tax cut, Boehner continued, shouting, “So, to accuse us of wanting to gut women’s health is absolutely not true.”
On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, took exception to Republicans characterizing the health care fund as something inappropriate or sinister.
“You call preventive care a ‘slush fund’? I mean, they should be ashamed of themselves,” Reid said. “This is saving people’s lives, saving the country huge amounts of money.”
Asked about the payroll tax vote at a Friday news conference, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said Democrats weren’t happy about taking money from the fund for the payroll tax measure at the time and now want to ensure that the rest of the money stays in the fund.
On the House floor, Pelosi said House Republicans were forced by Obama’s publicizing of the issue to reverse their previous opposition to keeping the interest rates on federal student loans at the current 3.4% instead of letting them double to 6.8% on July 1.
She said the House budget proposal by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, called for allowing the interest rate to double in July, and that House Republicans had backed the plan as recently as last week.
The new House measure would eliminate the Prevention and Public Health Fund, Pelosi said, accusing Republicans of protecting tax subsidies for the oil industry while wanting “mom and children to pay the price.”
On Wednesday, Obama took on Boehner by name, telling students at the University of Iowa a spokesman in the speaker’s office believed the president’s focus on student loans is an effort to “distract people from the economy.”
The president told a rowdy audience, “Now think about that for a second, because these guys don’t get it.” He told the cheering crowd, “If you do well, the economy does well. This is about the economy. What economy are they talking about? You are the economy.”
A few hours later, Boehner announced a Friday vote on the House measure and hit back at the president saying, “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.”
On Tuesday night, Democratic Sens. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Sherrod Brown of Ohio introduced the Democratic proposal. It would freeze the current interest rate for one year and pay for it by closing a loophole on “S corporations,” a tax structure Democrats say can be used to avoid paying Social Security and Medicare taxes.
The Republican proposal in House also extends the current rate for one year, but it covers the cost by dipping into the health care fund intended to promote wellness, prevent disease and protect against public health emergencies.