With the deadline looming on a rate hike for federal student loans, the Senate's top Republican accused the White House Tuesday of dragging its feet and using students as political pawns.
At the White House, Education Secretary Arne Duncan issued another plea for a compromise to keep the rates from doubling, but appeared at times not to be familiar with new offers floated by congressional Republicans.
Top Republicans such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell contend the president is playing politics with the issue, dragging out talks even though GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney has come out in favor of a deal.
"The president may find it politically useful to keep these young people off-balance, but we don't think they should have to wait another day on this," said Mr. McConnell, Kentucky Republican. "And it's inexcusable for the president to do so. That's why we've bent over backwards to find a resolution."
Mr. McConnell and House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, sent a letter to President Obama last Thursday with proposals for how to pay for the roughly $6 billion cost of keeping federal Stafford loan interest rates from doubling for 7.4 million students. On Friday, a White House spokesman said the administration was evaluating those proposals.
But Mr. Duncan Tuesday sounded as if he wasn't familiar with the details of their proposals.
"If the Republicans are getting serious about that, that's fantastic," Mr. Duncan told reporters at the White House. "Over the next couple weeks, we fully expect Congress will do the right thing and - to solve this and to solve it in a bipartisan way."
And Vice President Joseph R. Biden, in a meeting with college officials, criticized congressional Republicans for playing political games with the issue.
"We're not going to trade off student loans for other vital, vital programs," Mr. Biden said, referring to an earlier House GOP plan to divert some money from health care programs to pay for the loan costs.
The vice president's message was more than Mr. McConnell could bear.
"Why doesn't the vice president just pick up the phone, choose one of the proposals we laid out in our letter, and then announce ... that the problem's been solved?" Mr. McConnell asked, accusing Mr. Obama's political team of using students as "props" in an "elaborate farce."
Both parties favor extending the current 3.4 percent subsidized interest rate on subsidized Stafford loans for another year, but they disagree on how to pay for it. Republican leaders have offered to cover the cost by gradually increasing the amount that federal workers contribute to their pensions. Another proposal includes reducing Medicaid reimbursements to states.
Mr. Biden said the administration is "wide open" to suggestions, but nobody in the administration Tuesday would comment on the specifics of the various GOP proposals.
Republicans have accused the president of exaggerating the conflict in an election-year appeal to young voters, who Mr. Obama says will pay an extra $1,000 over the life of their loans if the rate increases.
Mr. Duncan said he's still optimistic that a deal can be reached before the July 1 deadline.
"I think, obviously, all of us want to get this thing done and get it done before July 1st," he said. "That's critically important. For so many not just disadvantaged families, so many middle-class families now are starting to think college is unaffordable, somehow it's not for them, it's for rich folks. That's a real problem. We can't afford to take this step in the wrong direction."
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