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Student loans, Violence Against Women Act spur fights in Congress

Republicans oppose Democrats on two seemingly bipartisan issues: keeping student loan interest rates low and reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act.

April 25, 2012|By Lisa Mascaro, Washington Bureau
  • House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said of the student loan issue: "We can, and will, fix the problem without a bunch of campaign-style theatrics."
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said of the student loan issue: "We… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)

WASHINGTON — For a brief moment, it looked as though Congress might be able to reach agreement on two popular pieces of legislation without a fight, but it didn't take long for Washington's partisan ways to prevail over any spirit of compromise.

President Obama and his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill are pressing to maintain the current low rate of interest for student loans and reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.

Republicans were reluctant to be seen as blocking initiatives that appeal to middle-class voters, especially women. They were, after all, still smarting over losing the showdown they had provoked over cutting the payroll tax, and trying to live down accusations that they were waging a "war on women" for fighting an Obama administration directive on contraceptives.

But not even support for advancing these issues from rank-and-file lawmakers and GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney appears to have tamped down the instinct among congressional Republicans to engage in battle.

The looming confrontations on both issues show how hard it is for Republicans — or Democrats, for that matter — to compromise in this highly contentious environment, even when doing so would arguably be in their political interest.

Although Republicans say they support keeping student loan interest rates low, they oppose the tax hike on higher incomes proposed by Democrats to pay for it. Instead, they want to pull money from Obama's healthcare programs. Republicans also are unveiling an alternative to the Violence Against Women legislation.

House SpeakerJohn A. Boehner(R-Ohio) insisted, as he announced a Friday vote on his party's student loan alternative, there was no need for drama.

"This week, the president is traveling the country on the taxpayers' dime, campaigning and trying to invent a fight where there isn't one — and never has been one on this issue," he said. "We can, and will, fix the problem without a bunch of campaign-style theatrics."

As GOP leaders began staking out their positions this week, some Republicans privately acknowledged that going to the mat on these issues could hurt them with voters.

"From nat'l perspective — yes, probably not best issue for us," one Republican campaign strategist wrote in an email.

Yet in the bubble that is Washington, and more specifically the political arms race of Capitol Hill, old habits die hard. Serving up a bipartisan victory is especially tough for Republicans when they sense that Democrats are using these popular issues for campaign advantage.

Republicans alleged that Democrats purposely put forward a tax increase to pay for the student loan program "to make us look bad," as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, because they knew Republicans would reject it.

Student loan interest rates are on track to jump July 1, doubling to 6.8% unless Congress acts at a time when families have been cash-strapped in the struggling economy and college costs have soared.

"If the president was more interested in solving this problem than in hearing the sound of his own voice or the applause of college students, all he'd have to do is pick up the phone and work it out with Congress," McConnell said.

Democrats want to cover the $6-billion cost of keeping student loan interest rates low, at 3.4%, by closing a loophole for high-income individuals who file taxes as so-called S corporations. Those earning beyond $200,000 a year, or $250,000 for couples, would have to start reporting some of their profit as income, meaning a tax hike.

But tax increases have been off-limits for Republicans, most of whom signed a pledge to their constituents not to do so. Instead, Republicans put forward a plan that would pull from a public health and prevention fund established under the nation's new healthcare law.

Similarly, the Violence Against Women Act, which has expired, is operating on funds that will run out with the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

Usually a bipartisan bill — it has the support of 61 senators, enough to make it filibuster-proof — the reauthorization of programs to prevent and respond to domestic violence and sexual abuse has run into political problems. Democrats sought to ensure protections for those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and expand a visa program for immigrant women who have been abused.

A Republican alternative being drafted may fail to explicitly guarantee those protections, and is likely to keep the visa program as is.

Yet such details are often lost on voters, as happened during the payroll tax holiday fight. They see the stalemate that has come to define Washington, giving both parties dismal ratings, though Republicans have mostly been trailing Democrats since the payroll debacle.

Democrats, sensing that their Republican opponents were heading for trouble, were happy to frame a broader campaign narrative.

"This is part of a long record of them fighting for positions that put them at odds with middle-class voters," said Matt Canter, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "This has been their modus operandi from the time they came into this Congress; voters have gotten the message and seen this intransigence play out over and over again. What they're doing in each of these incidents is they sound and appear completely tone-deaf and out of touch."

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