WASHINGTON — House Speaker John Boehner accused President Barack Obama on Thursday of conduct "beneath the dignity of the White House." The top House Democrat said Boehner considers the health of women "a luxury."
In a measure of the sharp elbows both parties are throwing this election year, those words were exchanged over legislation whose basic purpose they say they agree on: preventing interest rates on millions of federal student loans from doubling to 6.8 percent this summer.
Their chief remaining dispute is how to pay for the $5.9 billion cost of keeping those rates low. House Republicans would cut spending from Obama's prized health care overhaul law, Senate Democrats would boost payroll taxes on owners of some private corporations and House Democrats would erase federal subsidies to oil and gas companies.
The rhetoric intensified Thursday, a day before the House was set to vote on a GOP-written bill that would keep current 3.4 percent interest rates on subsidized Stafford loans intact for another year. The measure would be paid for by carving money out of a preventive health fund established by Obama's health care overhaul law.
Obama spent two days this week visiting three college campuses in North Carolina, Colorado and Iowa, using campaign-style speeches to complain that Republicans are dragging their feet on blocking the interest rate boosts.
By Thursday, Boehner, R-Ohio, had had enough, accusing Obama of using taxpayer money to launch political attacks on Republicans for a problem that GOP lawmakers were already working to address.
"Frankly, I think this is beneath the dignity of the White House," Boehner told reporters. "For the president to make a campaign issue and then to travel to three battleground states and go to three large college campuses on taxpayers money to try to make this some political issue is pathetic. And his campaign ought to be reimbursing the Treasury for the cost of this trip."
White House spokesman Jay Carney defended the travel as an effort to champion an important policy issue. He said by taking a high-profile stand in favor of extending the student loan rate, Obama succeeded in winning Republican support.
Minutes before Boehner spoke, he was the focus of attacks by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
She accused Republicans of paying for their student loan bill by raiding women's programs.
The House GOP bill would cut a $17 billion prevention and public health fund whose projects include breast cancer screening, childhood immunizations, research and wellness education. Boehner and other Republicans have called the program a "slush fund," and Congress dipped into it this year to prevent reductions in doctors' Medicare reimbursements for doctors.
"It may be a slush fund for him, but it's survival for women," Pelosi told reporters. "That just goes to show you what a luxury he thinks it is to have good health for women."