WASHINGTON — Republicans ignored a veto threat and overcame a rebellion by party conservatives to push a bill through the House Friday keeping interest rates on millions of federal student loans from doubling this summer.
Lawmakers voted 215-195 to approve a bill that has become an election-year battle between the two parties over helping families in a persistently ailing economy. The measure sparked debate over women’s health issues, too.
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 in President Barack Obama’s health care law. They say the program mostly benefits women, while Republicans call it a loosely controlled slush fund.
“This is a politically motivated proposal and not the serious response that the problem facing America’s college students deserves,” the White House wrote in a veto message shortly before the House vote.
Democrats accused Republicans of supporting the effort to keep student loan interest rates low only because of political pressure from Obama.
The House measure is destined to die in the Senate, where majority Democrats have written a version of the bill paid for by raising Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes on high-income owners of some privately owned companies, which GOP senators oppose.
GOP lawmakers were pressured by conservative groups like the Club for Growth to oppose the legislation because, they said, the government should not subsidize student loans. In the end, 30 Republicans voted no, while 202 voted yes.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Democrats had invented a Republican war on women for political gain.
“To pick this big political fight where there is no fight is just silly. Give me a break,” he said, winning a raucous standing ovation from GOP lawmakers.
On the Democratic side, party leaders pressured rank-and-file lawmakers to oppose the Republican measure. Some Democrats wanted to vote to keep student loan rates low, though it meant accepting GOP health care cuts.
In the end, 165 Democrats opposed the bill, and 13 voted for it.
The House bill would keep interest rates for subsidized Stafford loans at 3.4 percent for another year. Without congressional action, they would rise automatically to 6.8 percent on July 1, a condition set in a law Democrats pushed through Congress five years ago.
Republicans noted that many Democrats had voted earlier this year to take money from the preventive health fund to help 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.
Friday’s vote came with congressional Republicans and Democrats, as well as Obama and his near-certain GOP opponent this fall, Mitt Romney, competing at every turn over who has the best prescription to wring new jobs out of the still-struggling economy. The student loan battle fits nicely into that theme, with 7.4 million low- and middle-income students and their parents reliant on Stafford loans and a college education symbolizing the ticket to economic success.
The vote also followed days of campaign-style road trips that Obama used to get in front of the issue and portray Republicans as foot-draggers on it. The week began with Romney saying he favored keeping loan rates low, remarks he hoped would prevent Obama from making the matter a campaign fight but which may have helped prod congressional Republicans into action.
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.’”
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.