WASHINGTON - In an escalating election-year clash, the House will vote Friday on a $5.9 billion Republican bill that would prevent interest rates on federal student loans from doubling this summer and would be paid for by cutting money from President Obama's health-care overhaul law.
Wednesday's abrupt announcement by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, came with Obama and Democrats clamoring daily for congressional action to prevent the current 3.4 percent interest rate on subsidized Stafford student loans from automatically increasing to 6.8 percent on July 1.
That increase, set by law unless Congress blocks it, would affect 7.4 million students at a time when both parties are competing for the votes of young adults and their parents who must foot college tuitions. Each is also trying to show voters that it knows best how to shield people from pain inflicted by the weak economy.
With Obama engaged in a series of campaign-style speeches in recent days about the need to block the interest-rate boost, Republicans came under even greater pressure when Mitt Romney, the GOP's presumptive presidential nominee, announced Monday that he, too, favored the move.
Also taking the offensive were Senate Democrats, who introduced legislation Tuesday blocking the increase for a year. Senate Republicans said they backed the idea of freezing the interest rate but opposed a tax on some private corporations that Senate Democrats would use to pay for it. Until Boehner's announcement of Friday's vote, Republicans had nothing tangible that they could vote for to demonstrate their support.
At a hurriedly called news conference, Boehner told reporters that Obama has been "trying to invent a fight where there wasn't and never has been one" and said, "We can and will fix the problem without a bunch of campaign-style theatrics."
Boehner spoke after Obama had wrapped up his third college- campus visit in two days, using his cheering young audiences as backdrops to laud Democrats' efforts to keep student loans affordable and to bash Republicans.
House Republicans would pay for their one-year measure from a $17 billion prevention and public-health fund that Obama's law created for immunization campaigns, research, screenings and wellness education. Republicans have dubbed it a "slush fund" and have sought to cut it to finance a variety of projects that they favor. There is $13.5 billion left in the fund for the coming decade, according to the administration.
Senate Democrats' legislation would keep student-loan interest rates at 3.4 percent for another year. It would be paid for by increasing the Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes owed by upper-income owners of some privately held corporations, including many lawyers' and doctors' practices.