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Student loans become political fodder

Celinda Davis said she may be the last member of her family to attend college if Congress decides to reduce student aid.

Without help from the government, "I doubt I would have ever been able to go to college at all," said the University of Redlands (Calif.) student, who spent her childhood in poverty.

On Tuesday, Davis joined students and congressional Democrats to protest what they said were Republicans' plans to reduce funding for student loans.

Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said that the Republicans' attempt to balance the budget will force a $4,000 tuition increase on 4-million college students. He contrasted that with GOP plans to provide a $20,000 tax break for Americans with an annual income of $350,000 or more.

At a Capitol Hill news conference, Democrats contended that student aid helped Republicans like House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Rep. Dick Armey of Texas and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas through college.

"If it (student aid) worked for you, why can't it work for us?" asked Kevin Geary, president of the College Democrats of America.

Democratic Rep. David Bonior of Michigan agreed that government spending needs to be cut, but not student aid. He said budget cutters should target $200-billion corporate tax breaks; $1.2-billion to rich corporate miners; and $4.3-billion to agribusiness. Bonior also claimed that Gingrich wants to spend $50-billion on a spaced-based defense project.

"Only in "Gingrich Washington' can we cut programs that feed our children, teach our children, train our children and provide jobs for our children and then say "We're doing it for our children,'

" Bonior said.

The news conference was marked by cheers and chants from the students, who yelled "Student aid works! Student aid works!"

Missouri Rep. William Clay, top Democrat of the Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, said that "for parents and children alike, (student aid) has made a dream come true."

In the Republicans' defense, Armey spokesman Ed Gillespie said the new budget proposal will not reduce the number of students who benefit from loans. He said the only difference would be that upon graduation students would have to pay back more to the system from their loans.

He also said he believes that some of the Democratic research of the budget proposal is inaccurate, including allegations that Armey received student aid in college.

The GOP-controlled Congress is expected to give its final approval of the budget blueprint in the next several days. Democrats want to contrast the GOP plans for education with the budget plan of President Clinton, who would offer tax breaks to help students and parents pay for college.