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House to put loan reform in health care bill

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House Democrats plan to tack a major reform of the nation's student loan system onto the health care overhaul bill, a move that could help corral votes in the House but might make the bill's passage more complicated in the Senate.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday that the reconciliation bill will also remove federal assistance to banks and lenders such as Sallie Mae for providing student loans.

The reconciliation bill is the package of changes to the health care bill already passed by the Senate in December. The companion bill will be presented to the Senate under special rules that eliminate the chance of a Republican filibuster and only require a simple majority for passage.

Mrs. Pelosi said that the student loan reforms had to be included in the reconciliation package because the original bill allowing for reconciliation required the two to be tied together.

House leaders expect cost estimates on the package in the next few days, possibly this weekend, and are planning for a vote next week.

President Obama postponed his trip to Indonesia and Australia from March 18 to 21 to monitor the final health care talks, and Mrs. Pelosi said she's "delighted" the president will be in town to see passage of his chief legislative priority.

House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, California Democrat, said there isn't "any question" that the student loan reforms would help secure votes for the reconciliation package. The bill would eliminate subsidies to private banks that provide student loans, allowing the federal government to grant loans directly. It would also increase the annual maximum allowance for loans.

House Democrats have been skeptical of voting for the Senate version of the health care bill --- the first step in the reconciliation process.

The Senate bill contains a number of provisions they don't like -- including federal aid targeted at specific states that critics say was used to buy votes and a tax on high-cost insurance plans. House Democrats fear that, after they approve the current Senate version of the bill, the Senate won't be able to pass the reconciliation bill and fix the objectionable parts.

But the student loan reforms aren't quite as popular in the Senate. Six lawmakers wrote a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid this week cautioning against the move, but did not say they would vote against the health bill over it. Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said Thursday that Senate Democrats were divided over the issue. But the reconciliation bill must originate in the House, meaning the Senate's hands may be tied.

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