Debates in House on loan relief bill reach new heights

By Jim Kuhnhenn

WASHINGTON – Ready to pass a cut in student loan interest rates, House members on Wednesday clashed over education priorities – helping college graduates pay off debts or expanding federal grants for low-income students.

Democrats were pushing the interest rate bill through without amendments, eager to check off one more accomplishment in their list of early legislative goals. The bill aims to reduce rates for the 5.5 million students who get need-based federal tuition loans each year.

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The Bush administration opposes the bill and Senate Democrats plan to bring up a more comprehensive measure that could complicate its prospects.

The House bill would cut rates from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent in stages over a five-year period, at a cost of $6 billion to taxpayers. To cover that cost, the bill would reduce the government’s guaranteed return to lenders that make student loans, reduce what the government pays for defaulted loans and require banks to pay more in fees.

“Many young people find themselves where I was when I was at age 18, wondering what they will do with their lives,” said Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., a daughter of immigrants who is still paying off her student loans. “To those students, especially those whose parents didn’t go to college, the prospect of student loan debt is frightening.”

Republicans said Democrats had chosen a politically expedient way to make good on a campaign promise instead of finding ways to increase federal college grants to help the poor meet rising college tuition.

“It is a whoop-de-do bill,” said GOP Rep. Rob Bishop, a retired high school teacher from Utah. “But to be honest, what it does for my kids in college is nothing. What it does for the friends of my kids in college is nothing. What it does for the students I taught in high school and are still in college is basically nothing when it could have done so much more.”

In the Senate, lawmakers struggled with ethics legislation that would govern lawmakers and lobbyists, and worked to broaden House-passed legislation on the minimum wage.

At the same time, a bipartisan group of senators was preparing to introduce a nonbinding resolution opposing President Bush’s plan to add 21,500 troops to the U.S. force in Iraq.

“U.S. strategy and presence on the ground in Iraq can only be sustained with the support of the American people and the bipartisan support of the United States Congress,” the resolution states.

It was prepared by Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee; Joe Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a longtime critic of Bush administration policy in Iraq.

Biden has said he is running for president; Hagel is a possible contender for the 2008 race.

The war and reaction to Bush’s proposal was overshadowing the Democrats’ carefully planned strategy to act on popular domestic policy initiatives and accumulate a list of accomplishments.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is waiting to see what the Senate would pass before she would have the House consider the Iraq resolution. But Democratic leaders face pressure from some House Democrats to take stronger measures to oppose Bush.

The Senate, meanwhile, edged closer toward passing legislation that would raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 over the next two years and give tax breaks to small businesses.

The Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday unanimously approved tax proposals to help restaurants, retailers and employers that hire welfare recipients and other such as ex-convicts and the disabled who have trouble finding work.

The House last week passed a minimum wage bill without the tax measures. The Senate is expected to begin debate on the legislation next week.

The ethics and lobbying bill that the Senate has debated for more than a week hit a momentary snag. Republicans indicated they would vote against moving ahead unless they could vote on an amendment giving the president authority to single out individual spending items in legislation for elimination.

“It’s very clear the minority doesn’t want a bill,” said Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

But Reid also promised the author of the amendment, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., that he would have a vote on his proposal before the Easter recess if Gregg withdrew it from the ethics bill.

The House on Wednesday concentrated on the student loan bill. Democrats pledged to address later in the year other ways to make college more affordable.

The legislation matched the Democrats’ promise to pass student loan legislation in the first 100 hours of the new Congress.