Lawmakers and veterans urged Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Edwards to stop blocking legislation aimed at easing student loan burdens for soldiers fighting overseas.
“It’s shameful that the members of our armed services are being held captive by political tactics,” said Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican and chairman of the House subcommittee that engineered the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students (Heroes) Act.
The bill — which in effect would defer student loan payments for soldiers engaged in military operations — overwhelmingly passed the House in April just seven days after it was introduced.
Ever since, it has been stuck in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, of which Mr. Edwards, North Carolina Democrat, is a member. The presidential candidate opposed allowing a committee vote on the bill until an amendment he authored — which would be more generous to soldiers — was considered.
“Our troops deserve more than political infighting and stalling tactics,” said Rep. John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “We have an opportunity to prevent financial hardships for our men and women serving overseas by approving the Heroes legislation, and the fact that it is being held up for any reason, especially a desire to take personal credit, is unconscionable.”
North Carolina veterans also have reacted angrily.
“He’s out to make a name for himself to be president,” said Edward Parungo, commander of a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Mr. Edwards’ hometown of Raleigh. “He doesn’t care who he has to step on to do it.”
“If this is his policy towards our men and women in the military, then I’m deeply scared of what he’d be like as president,” said Conway Brooks, a disabled Army veteran from Raleigh.
A spokesman for Mr. Edwards denied any political motivation for his actions, except that the senator supported the bill and wanted to improve it.
Mr. Edwards’ Senate office confirmed Monday that he opposed moving the bill until after a vote on his amendment. But Tuesday morning, after The Washington Times reported that Mr. Edwards was blocking the bill, campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri hotly denied the report and said Mr. Edwards never opposed the measure.
In an e-mail to The Times later that day, Miss Palmieri said Mr. Edwards opposed moving the bill through committee under a “unanimous consent” agreement — a speedy legislative path for bills.
But, she added, “He has done nothing since that time to stand in the way of the bill.”
However, that is exactly why the bill is stalled in the committee, say several lawmakers and committee staffers who have been trying to push the bill through the Senate for the past three months.
“That’s the same thing as a hold,” explained one veteran staffer familiar with Senate committee procedures. “If someone objects to unanimous consent, it doesn’t kill the bill but it keeps it from moving.”
Under well-known Senate prerogatives, any member can block legislation by signaling to the leadership — in writing or verbally — opposition to a vote on the bill either in committee or on the floor. Oftentimes, senators block a bill that they support in an effort to improve it or to use it as leverage to win votes on unrelated legislation.
“The Senate’s a confusing place,” the staffer said on the condition of anonymity. “But holds are pretty straightforward.”
“It exposes him as a rank amateur,” said Bill Cobey, chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party. “You or your staff don’t do things like that just to get your name on the bill. And if he didn’t even know what he was doing, then that’s even worse.”
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, “supports moving the bill by unanimous consent and is hopeful the chairman and ranking member of the HELP committee will continue to work toward making that happen,” spokesman Nick Smith said yesterday.
The White House also supports the bill but has declined to step into the political fight over how it passes.
Mr. Edwards’ fellow senator from North Carolina, Republican Elizabeth Dole, “is certainly supportive of the legislation and would like to see it move forward expeditiously to help our men and women in uniform,” said spokeswoman Mary Brown Brewer.
The stalled bill caused such frustration for the education committee that Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican and committee chairman, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, determined that the bill “has been held up in the Senate and is unlikely to pass” in its current form, a letter obtained by The Times said.
Mr. Gregg also said in a brief interview that the bill had been blocked by a “secret hold,” but cited Senate courtesy in declining to say whose hold he thought it was. Numerous committee staffers, as well as others involved in moving the bill, said the hold belonged to Mr. Edwards.
Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican and author of the bill, accused Mr. Edwards last week of stalling the legislation to further his presidential campaign. Several Republicans have said Mr. Edwards wants to attach his amendment so he can take greater credit for the measure.
But Mr. Edwards’ office said his amendment would improve student loan benefits for soldiers by waiving interest fees. “He wants to make a good bill better,” said spokesman Mike Briggs.
The Heroes Act would extend a law on the books that is scheduled to expire Sept. 30.
“If he’s so concerned, then pass this bill and then sponsor another one,” said Mr. Brooks, the Army veteran, noting that Congress’ August recess is approaching. “But don’t stall this thing before the summer recess and let it affect our men and women serving in Iraq right now.”