ALLENTOWN, Pa. — President Bush, embracing an idea for student aid already championed by Democratic challenger Bill Clinton, proposed Thursday to create a $25,000 line of credit for any American willing to repay the money from future earnings.
And, as part of a continuing effort to bolster his claim of being "the education President," Bush said he will seek to expand access to existing federal student aid programs and increase the amount that can be borrowed. Those changes were suggested in the budget he sent to Congress in January but he had not followed up with actual legislative proposals.
"Education doesn't end with graduation," Bush told a group of Pennsylvania high school students. "Learning has got to be a lifelong pursuit."
He suggested an approach to federal aid that would embrace both young college students and older workers seeking new job skills to adapt to changing labor markets.
The convergence of the Republican President and his expected Democratic opponent on the idea of creating a kind of revolving credit plan for student aid appears to reflect the belief among political strategists in both parties that education could be a critical issue in this election year.
But Administration officials acknowledged that parts of the Bush package are recycled from earlier Administration proposals and that key elements closely resemble proposals already offered by Clinton. Moreover, the Arkansas governor noted Thursday that, until January, Bush had opposed allowing any but the very poorest students to have access to the so-called Pell grants that now constitute the federal government's basic aid program for students.
Bush's difficulty in dominating the education issue despite the advantages a sitting President enjoys in setting a policy agenda spring in part from his longstanding aversion to creating new federal programs and the limits on new spending imposed by the still-soaring federal deficit.
In addition, there are deep divisions within Bush's political base over how to deal with education.
William J. Bennett, the education secretary under Ronald Reagan, said Bush's approach reflects a "risk-averse, Rose Garden strategy. . . . There are people at the White House who are afraid to alienate any potential voters."
Nonetheless, Administration officials declared that Bush's proposals will strike a responsive chord with voters.
Education Secretary Lamar Alexander described the $25,000 line of credit plan as a "breathtaking idea" that was "something every American can understand."
"It's money in the bank," he said. "You take it, you spend it, you pay it back."
Terms of repayment would vary, with interest charges keyed to recipients' ability to pay. Alexander had no details.
The line of credit for education and job training would be offered through the Student Loan Marketing Assn., known as Sallie Mae. Alexander said management by Sallie Mae would ensure that the new plan "won't cost anything" to taxpayers. That assumes no one would default, however.
Sallie Mae provides a form of loan guarantee to banks that advance money to students by pooling thousands of such loans and selling securities with the pooled loans as collateral.
Bush chose to present the plan just over a week before the Pennsylvania primary. Although Bush's remaining rival for the Republican nomination, Patrick J. Buchanan, is not actively opposing him in the state, Clinton suggested that politics lay behind the announcements.
"Just 12 days before the Pennsylvania primary, the President comes to Pennsylvania to promise universal access" to education aid, Clinton said in a speech at the Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia. "And they say I'm slick."
In this political year, the White House schedules such events with one imperative in mind: getting the President's face and words on the nightly television newscasts. This time, however, Bush's schedule may have done more to boost the visibility of his likely opponent.
Both ABC and NBC opened their news programs with pieces pointing up the similarity between the Bush and Clinton proposals and showing Clinton poking fun at Bush for having borrowed one of his ideas. CBS aired a similar piece later in its broadcast.
"The President may not have stolen this idea from Gov. Clinton," ABC correspondent Brit Hume told his viewers, but "it sounded fishy."
The plan is identical in name and similar in structure to one already introduced by Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, and a spokesman for the governor had earlier suggested that the Bush proposal was tantamount to plagiarism.
But Thomas Scully, a senior White House official traveling with Bush, said the plan was "not a political ploy." And Alexander said he and others in the Administration had been at work on the proposal for a number of months.
"It's the President's proposal," Alexander said, "and if other people have the same proposal, then so much the better."