Senate to try again on student loan vote

Democratic senators make another attempt to advance bill to restore student loan rates

Associated Press
Senate fails to keep student loan rates low
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In this July 8, 2013, photo, with a backdrop of college students on the step of the House of Representatives, Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, center, and GOP leaders talk about the politics of federal student loan rates which doubled on July 1, at the Capitol in Washington. Senate Democrats are trying to restore lower interest rates on student loans. A procedural vote is scheduled for Wednesday on a Senate measure that would return rates on subsidized Stafford loans to 3.4 percent for one year. An earlier attempt in the Senate to keep rates low came up short and those loans’ rates doubled to 6.8 percent on July 1. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The White House and top Democrat in the Senate urged lawmakers to restore lower interest rates on student loans one week after Congress' inaction caused those rates to double.

A procedural vote is scheduled for Wednesday on a Democratic-backed Senate measure that would return rates on subsidized Stafford loans to 3.4 percent for one year. An earlier attempt in the Senate to keep rates low came up short and rates for those loans doubled to 6.8 percent on July 1.

"Students shouldn't suffer while we attempt compromise," said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader. "That's why Democrats have proposed a one-year extension of last year's 3.4 percent rate. This extension will allow us to craft a long-term solution to mounting college debt without harming students in the short term."

The White House, too, released a statement urging the Senate to move head on the fix.

Republicans, however, remained unimpressed with the plan and could scuttle the stopgap effort.

"This plan merely kicks the can down the road for 12 more months," said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. "We're going to vote on a 3.4 percent extension, kicking the can down the road and not finding a solution."

The rate increase did not affect many students right away; loan documents are generally signed just before students return to campus, and few students returned to school over the July Fourth holiday. Existing loans were not affected, either.

However, absent congressional action in the coming weeks, the increase could spell an extra $2,600 for an average student returning to campus this fall, according to Congress' Joint Economic Committee. Lawmakers from both parties have criticized the increase and the costs passed to students, but there is little agreement on how to restore the lower rates.

During last year's presidential campaign, lawmakers from both parties voted to keep interest rates on subsidized Stafford loans at 3.4 percent. Yet this year, without a presidential election looming, the issue seemed to fizzle and the July 1 deadline passed without action.

Most Democratic senators favored keeping the rates at 3.4 percent for now and including a broad overhaul of federal student loans in the Higher Education Act rewrite lawmakers expect to take up this fall. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said the matter needs to be viewed in a holistic way.

"How are we going to address the costs of college? How are we going to make college more affordable for our kids?" Franken said.

Yet an earlier Democratic attempt at a two-year extension failed to overcome a procedural hurdle before lawmakers left for the July Fourth holiday. Under Senate rules, 60 votes are needed to let the proposal go forward and Democrats alone cannot force it ahead.

A one-year extension seemed heading toward the same fate as Republicans and a few Democrats said Congress should take up a comprehensive approach instead of a one-year delay.

"What is good about a short-term political fix?" said Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate Education Committee.

Efforts to find a compromise seemed heading nowhere as well. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia worked with Alexander to write a bipartisan bill that closely follows a bill the GOP-led House has already passed. That bill incorporated an idea that was included in President Barack Obama's budget to link interest rates to the financial markets.

Under the House plan, interest rates would be lower in the next few years but rise as the economy improves.

"That is not fair to students and it is certainly not good for our economy," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

The Democratic chairman of the Education Committee, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, also said the GOP proposal was not an option and stood opposed to considering it this summer. Instead, he insisted on a one-year extension of the current rates.

"Congress has an imperative to pass a plan to keep rates low now so that students and families struggling to afford college can count on affordable federal student loans," Harkin said.

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