WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans have ignored a White House veto threat and passed a bill to keep interest rates on millions of federal student loans from doubling this summer.
The House approved the bill Friday on a 215-195 vote, despite pressure both from conservative groups and the Obama administration.
The election-year bill has evolved from a dispute over helping students into a battle between the two parties over how to help families cope with the weak job market and ailing economy.
The White House and most Democrats opposed the $5.9 billion bill because of how Republicans covered the costs: Eliminating a preventive health care fund created by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (PPACA).
The veto warning came as GOP leaders hunted for votes for the measure, which they were trying to push through the House. They were running into opposition from outside conservative groups like the Club for Growth, which was pressuring Republicans to oppose the legislation because, the groups said, the government should not subsidize student loans.
The election-year clash between the White House and Republicans over the bill has escalated from a dispute over helping millions of students into a broader proxy battle over how to best help families cope with the weak job market and ailing economy, and how each side treats women's issues.
House Democrats have been arguing that the PPACA preventive care program now in the GOP crosshairs is especially helpful to women. The White House has picked up on that theme and said that "women in particular" benefit from the program — a message that reflects the Democratic effort to woo women voters by accusing Republicans of waging a war on them.
"This is a politically motivated proposal and not the serious response that the problem facing America's college students deserves," said the White House message. It said Obama's advisers would urge him to veto the bill.
Republicans have called the prevention program a "slush fund," saying the money is not controlled tightly enough.
"The president is so desperate to fake a fight that he's willing to veto a bill to help students over a slush fund that he advocated cutting in his own budget," said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "It's a simple as this: Republicans are acting to help college students and the president is now getting in the way."
Republicans noted that many Democrats had voted earlier this year to take money from the preventive health fund to help pay to keep doctors' Medicare reimbursements from dropping. Obama's own budget in February proposed cutting $4 billion from the same fund to pay for some of his priorities.
The House bill would keep interest rates for subsidized Stafford loans at 3.4%, instead of letting them rise to 6.8% on July 1 without any congressional action. The higher interest rates, if triggered, would affect the 7.4 million undergraduates expected to borrow new Stafford loans beginning July 1. This year, 8 million students took out such loans, averaging $3,568, according to the Education Department.
Even if the House bill passes as expected, it seems certain to go nowhere in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Senate Democrats have a bill of their own that would pay for extending the lower interest rate by boosting the payroll taxes paid by high-earning owners of some private firms. Republicans oppose the proposal.
Democrats noted that Republicans previously had questioned the wisdom of keeping students' interest rates low. They also accused Republicans of reversing themselves, after voting earlier this month for a 2013 federal budget that let Stafford loan rates double as scheduled.
For House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the emphasis was the GOP's cuts in the preventive health program, whose initiatives she said include breast cancer screening and children's immunizations. She contrasted that with a Democratic bill extending the low student rates by cutting subsidies to oil and natural gas companies, which is opposed by the GOP.
Pelosi characterized the Republican view as, "'We prefer tax subsidies for big oil rather than the health of America's women.'"
Despite the partisan battle lines, it seemed possible that some members of both parties would defect from their leaders' positions.
Heritage Action for America, a conservative group, was lobbying Republicans to oppose the GOP bill and let interest rates rise, saying to do otherwise would burden taxpayers. Several conservative GOP lawmakers said Thursday they hadn't decided how to vote.
On the Democratic side, party leaders were pressuring their rank-and-file to oppose the Republican measure. Some Democrats were eager to vote to keep student loan rates low, though it meant accepting GOP health care cuts.
Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., said some Democrats "may feel upon reflection that they've got to swallow hard but swallow" those health care reductions. He said he hadn't decided how to vote.
Associate Press writers Donna Cassata and Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.