Student-Loan Debate Comes Into (Familiar) Focus in the Senate

Republicans and Democrats are trading punches, even before the real debate begins.

 A general view during the college commencement ceremony for Westminister College on June 1, 2013 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
National Journal
Michael Catalini
See more stories about...
Michael Catalini
May 7, 2014, 4:16 p.m.

Law­makers are already clash­ing over what is shap­ing up to be the next par­tis­an brawl in the Sen­ate: a Demo­crat­ic pro­pos­al that would al­low bor­row­ers to re­fin­ance stu­dent-loan debt, paid for by a tax on mil­lion­aires.

As de­tails emerge on the de­bate over col­lege af­ford­ab­il­ity, both sides are already throw­ing punches. Key Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors say the bill is simply polit­ic­al mes­saging, while Demo­crats are tak­ing to the floor to de­scribe the dire cir­cum­stances fa­cing stu­dent bor­row­ers.

The Bank on Stu­dents Emer­gency Loan Re­fin­an­cing Act is part of the Demo­crats’ Fair Shot Agenda, an elec­tion-year plat­form aimed at ex­cit­ing their base and demon­strat­ing the party’s con­cern for pock­et­book is­sues. The le­gis­la­tion has 26 co­spon­sors — all Demo­crats — and would let bor­row­ers with out­stand­ing stu­dent-loan debt re­fin­ance it at the 3.86 per­cent rate achieved after Con­gress passed the Bi­par­tis­an Stu­dent Loan Cer­tainty Act last year.

The bill pro­poses to pay for the meas­ure by ap­ply­ing the so-called Buf­fett Rule, a tax named after in­vestor War­ren Buf­fett that calls for a min­im­um rate of 30 per­cent on those earn­ing more than $1 mil­lion. Demo­crats are point­ing to the eco­nom­ic im­pact of stu­dent debt, with out­stand­ing loans now total­ing $1.2 tril­lion — even more than cred­it card debt, they say. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Min­nesota re­mem­bers how her grand­fath­er paid her dad’s way through col­lege by sav­ing money in a cof­fee jar. There’s no jar big enough to pay today’s col­lege bills, she said.

“This stu­dent debt hangs like an an­chor around not just our stu­dents, but our en­tire eco­nomy,” Klobuchar said.

But the bill is a non­starter for many Re­pub­lic­ans, largely be­cause of the pro­vi­sion to pay for it.

“This looks like a dus­ted-off pro­pos­al to raise taxes, and that’s not something I think we need to do,” said Sen. John Cornyn, the minor­ity whip. “Our eco­nomy grew at 0.1 per­cent last quarter.”

Cornyn wouldn’t say un­equi­voc­ally that Re­pub­lic­ans would with­hold sup­port and keep the meas­ure from get­ting the 60 votes needed for floor ac­tion, be­cause he is still re­view­ing the le­gis­la­tion. But Re­pub­lic­ans gen­er­ally balk at the no­tion of rais­ing taxes. He also said Sen. Lamar Al­ex­an­der of Ten­ness­ee, the rank­ing Re­pub­lic­an on the Health, Edu­ca­tion, Labor, and Pen­sions Com­mit­tee, would mount the GOP’s re­sponse.

“This is kind of like a Tro­jan Horse, the best it looks to me,” Cornyn said. “I think you’re go­ing to hear very pos­it­ive and con­struct­ive pro­pos­als from our side. I think Sen­at­or Al­ex­an­der, among oth­ers, is go­ing to be lead­ing that ef­fort. We’re happy to en­gage on edu­ca­tion and on costs and af­ford­ab­il­ity, but I don’t think this is the right ap­proach.”

Pre­view­ing his con­fer­ence’s ex­pec­ted re­but­tal, Al­ex­an­der poin­ted to GOP pro­pos­als, in­clud­ing school-choice meas­ures and a re­vamp­ing of the Pell Grant sys­tem, as al­tern­at­ives. “The Demo­crats’ pro­pos­al is start­ing down the road of turn­ing a tril­lion dol­lars of stu­dent loans in­to grants and count­ing spend­ing in a way that the Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice has told Con­gress not to do,” he said in a state­ment to Na­tion­al Journ­al, re­fer­ring to a de­bate over con­gres­sion­al ac­count­ing.

In­deed, Demo­crats ad­mit that they craf­ted this year’s le­gis­lat­ive agenda with midterm elec­tions in mind. Re­pub­lic­an cri­ti­cism of the bill has been swift, com­ing even be­fore the cham­ber be­gins de­bat­ing the meas­ure.

“It’s got a pay-for that’s un­ac­cept­able,” said Sen. Richard Burr of North Car­o­lina, who helped broker the stu­dent-loan bill last sum­mer.

Sen. Or­rin Hatch, the rank­ing Re­pub­lic­an on the Fin­ance Com­mit­tee, where the bill was re­ferred, also shot the le­gis­la­tion down.

“In­stead of lin­ing up polit­ic­al show votes, Demo­crats should be work­ing with Re­pub­lic­ans to ad­vance le­gis­la­tion that will cre­ate more jobs for young people and grow the eco­nomy,” he said in a state­ment.

What We're Following See More »
A DARK CLOUD OVER TRUMP?
Snowstorm Could Impact Primary Turnout
1 days ago
THE LATEST

A snowstorm is supposed to hit New Hampshire today and “linger into Primary Tuesday.” GOP consultant Ron Kaufman said lower turnout should help candidates who have spent a lot of time in the state tending to retail politicking. Donald Trump “has acknowledged that he needs to step up his ground-game, and a heavy snowfall could depress his figures relative to more organized candidates.”

Source:
IN CASE OF EMERGENCY
A Shake-Up in the Offing in the Clinton Camp?
1 days ago
THE DETAILS

Anticipating a primary loss in New Hampshire on Tuesday, Hillary and Bill Clinton “are considering staffing and strategy changes” to their campaign. Sources tell Politico that the Clintons are likely to layer over top officials with experienced talent, rather than fire their staff en masse.

Source:
THE LAST ROUND OF NEW HAMPSHIRE POLLS
Trump Is Still Ahead, but Who’s in Second?
1 days ago
THE LATEST

We may not be talking about New Hampshire primary polls for another three-and-a-half years, so here goes:

  • American Research Group’s tracking poll has Donald Trump in the lead with 30% support, followed by Marco Rubio and John Kasich tying for second place at 16%. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders leads Hillary Clinton 53%-41%.
  • The 7 News/UMass Lowell tracking poll has Trump way out front with 34%, followed by Rubio and Ted Cruz with 13% apiece. Among the Democrats, Sanders is in front 56%-40%.
  • A Gravis poll puts Trump ahead with 28%, followed by Kasich with 17% and Rubio with 15%.
IT’S ALL ABOUT SECOND PLACE
CNN Calls the Primary for Sanders and Trump
16 hours ago
THE LATEST

Well that didn’t take long. CNN has already declared Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump the winners of the New Hampshire primary, leaving the rest of the candidates to fight for the scraps. Five minutes later, the Associated Press echoed CNN’s call.

Source:
×