Congressional Republicans are once again getting outplayed by President Obama.
Earlier in the week, they thought they had neutralized Mr. Obama’s political college tour by agreeing in principle to extend government-backed student-loan interest rates for a year. They did insist on spending cuts to match the $6 billion price tag of subsidizing college education, but the GOP choice of a partisan offset handed the stage to Mr. Obama. They’re now playing the role of Mr. Obama’s punching bag for at least two more weeks. Republicans need an exit strategy.
On Friday, the White House formally threatened to veto the House bill extending the current, artificially low 3.4 percent student-loan interest rate until July 1, 2013, because it would shut down Obamacare’s Prevention and Public Health Fund. House Speaker John A. Boehner defended his chosen pay-for by pointing out that just a couple months ago, the White House budget proposed a $4 billon cut to the program over 10 years, while Republicans would shut it down.
Cue Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who invented a link between the majority’s move and women’s rights. She claimed under the Republican bill that “in order for your [child] to go to college … we’re not going to be able to have preventative care, in terms of screening for breast cancer, cervical cancer, the list goes on and on.” The California Democrat wanted her alternative which would raise taxes on oil companies - an idea she knows has repeatedly failed in the Democratic Senate.
In the Senate, Republicans offered the House language while Democrats introduced an offset that would alter the tax code to slam small businesses. Majority Leader Harry Reid attacked GOP opposition to their plan as “protecting millionaire tax dodgers,” thus picking up on Mr. Obama’s campaign theme of painting Republicans as defenders of the rich. Instead of bringing either bill to the floor, the Nevada Democrat on Thursday shut down the upper chamber, sending senators home on a 10-day recess.
The contrived Stafford loan issue is a blatant attempt by Mr. Obama to win back the 20-somethings who have become disenchanted as the economy continues to drag. While the president tells college students their loans will go up $1,000 unless Congress acts, the truth is only new loans taken after June 30 would be affected.
Even then, those students won’t have to start making loan payments for at least four-and-a-half years. By then, they’ll pay an extra $7 or so per month. If Mr. Obama fails in his re-election bid, these new graduates most likely will have an easier time of landing a job that will allow them to pay back this amount.
The Republican misstep has set up a fight during the last week in June over who cares more about young people. Instead of focusing on which party platform would create economic conditions most likely to encourage future success, the debate is now over who can dole out the most freebies - a game Democrats know how to play best.
House Republicans should have learned to avoid this trap. In February, they folded when it came time to pay for last year’s $100 billion payroll tax-cut extension. Mr. Boehner should ready new offsets that come dollar-for-dollar out of the White House budget to propose when the House and Senate bills go to a conference committee. The sooner this debate is wrapped up on Capitol Hill, the better Republican chances are in November.
Emily Miller is a senior editor for the Opinion pages at The Washington Times.