WASHINGTON — Setting the stage for another political showdown, the House on Friday narrowly passed a Republican plan that would stop an interest-rate hike on student loans — paid for with funds from President Barack Obama's health care law.
Democrats want the rate kept low, but objected to eliminating a health fund to finance it. The GOP approach, they contended, was an attack on women and children who benefit from such programs. The White House vowed to veto the legislation, calling it a "politically motivated proposal," and noted that the health fund provides hundreds of thousands of screenings for breast and cervical cancer.
If Congress fails to come to an agreement, loan rates for 7 million college students will double to 6.8 percent on July 1. The rate increase would hit new loans.
In seeking to avoid this latest partisan battle, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, may have launched one by quickly pushing forward the legislation with little Democratic support. The House vote was 215-195. The legislation is essentially dead on arrival in the Senate, where Democrats have proposed taxing higher-income households to fund the loan program.
Nevertheless, Republicans have calculated that swift passage of their bill means they can shift the blame back to the White House.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, supports keeping the rates low. Boehner, leveling some of his harshest attacks yet on the White House, said Obama was engineering a "fake fight" to stir up support. The president in recent days has been traveling to college campuses around the country to rally students on keeping rates low.
"It's a simple as this: Republicans are acting to help college students and the president is now getting in the way," said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel.
Boehner was forced to rely on more than a dozen Democrats to ensure passage of the bill, showing how difficult it will be to craft an eventual compromise without Democratic support.
The 3.4 percent interest rate on federally subsidized loans was set in a 2007 law that expires this summer. Both parties see the student-loan issue as a good way to appeal to middle-class voters in this election year but disagree on how to cover the $6 billion cost.