WASHINGTON — Republicans defied a veto threat and the House voted Friday to prevent federal loan costs from doubling for millions of college students. The vote gave the GOP a momentary election-year triumph on a bill that has become enmeshed in partisan battles over the economy, women’s issues and President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.
The measure’s 215-195 passage was largely symbolic because the package is going nowhere in the Democratic-dominated Senate. Both parties agree students’ interest costs should not rise, but they are clashing along a familiar fault line over how to cover the $6 billion tab: Republicans want spending cuts and Democrats want higher revenues.
Friday’s vote underscored how with Election Day just over six months away, much of Congress’ work and passion can be aimed as much at political positioning as it is at writing law. Both parties want to show they are trying to help college students and their families cope in today’s unforgiving economy and, when possible, force their opponents to cast votes that might create fodder for TV attack ads.
The GOP bill would keep interest rates for subsidized Stafford loans at 3.4 percent for another year, rather than automatically growing to 6.8 percent on July 1 as they would under a law enacted five years ago by a Democratic Congress. The increase would affect 7.4 million students and, the Obama administration says, cost each an average $1,000 over the life of their loans.
Democrats trained their fire on the Republican plan to pay for the bill by abolishing a preventive health fund created by Obama’s 2010 revamping of the health care system. Democrats said that program especially helped women by allocating money for cancer screening and other initiatives and that eliminating it was only the latest GOP blow against women — a charge Republicans hotly contested.
“Give me a break,” roared House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to rousing cheers from Republican lawmakers. “This is the latest plank in the so-called war on women, entirely created by my colleagues across the aisle for political gain.”
Democrats voted solidly earlier this year to take money from the preventive health fund to help keep doctors’ Medicare reimbursements from dropping. Obama’s own budget in February proposed cutting $4 billion from the same fund to pay for some of his priorities.
Since the early days of this year’s GOP presidential contest, Democrats have been accusing Republicans of targeting women by advocating curbs on contraceptives and other policies. Polls show women leaning heavily toward Obama and Democrats would like to stoke that margin.
In its veto message, the White House argued that “women in particular” would be helped by the prevention fund and said, “This is a politically motivated proposal and not the serious response that the problem facing America’s college students deserves.”
House GOP leaders abruptly scheduled Friday’s vote after Obama barnstormed around the country in recent days to accuse them of ignoring students’ needs. Presumptive GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney began the week by saying he, too, wanted current interest rates extended temporarily, heaping further pressure on congressional Republicans to act.
Democrats said Republicans only staged Friday’s vote to remove it as an issue on which they would be vulnerable. They noted this months’ lock-step GOP vote for a 2013 federal budget that would have let Stafford interest rates double in July, and said Republicans had done little in Congress on the issue until this week.
“They’re just looking for a way to cover their rear ends,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.
Republicans said they were working methodically on the problem and accused Democrats of inventing a controversy to stir up their voters.
“People want to politicize this because it is an election year. But my God, do we have to fight about everything?” said Boehner.
Democrats broke 165-13 against the bill, with some of their members reluctant to vote against keeping students’ costs down, despite the accompanying health care cuts.
Democrats wrote a version of the bill, paid for by ending subsidies for oil and gas companies. It never had a chance of moving through the GOP-led House.
Senate Democrats plan a vote next month on their own legislation extending today’s interest rates for a year and paid for by making it harder for high-earning owners of many privately owned corporations to shield some of their income from Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes. That vote will also be little more than political posturing because Senate Republicans are certain to derail the measure.
House Republicans prevailed Friday only after staunching a brewing rebellion among their own conservatives, many of whom are skeptical about whether the government should subsidize student loans at all.
A lobbying campaign by outside conservative groups like Club for Growth and Heritage Action for America pressured GOP lawmakers to vote “no.” But an 11th-hour effort by GOP leaders to keep their rank-and-file onboard prevailed and Republicans ended up backing the legislation 202-30 — with half the opposition coming from the feisty, largely conservative GOP class of freshmen.
“The government doesn’t belong in that business,” said Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz.