Monday, June 30, 2003

Sen. John Edwards, North Carolina Democrat, is single-handedly blocking Senate action on legislation all but unanimously supported by the House to ease the student-loan burden for soldiers fighting overseas.

In April, the House voted 421-1 to pass the HEROES Act, which essentially would defer student loans for soldiers called into action. The only dissenting vote was cast accidentally by one of the bill’s sponsors.

The bill is stalled in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee under a “secret hold,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican and chairman of the committee.

Senate tradition allows members to lodge secret, or “anonymous,” holds against a bill and block it indefinitely.

Supporters of the bill, the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act, were mystified for months that anyone would hold up such popular legislation, but couldn’t pinpoint the culprit.

“It’s frustrating when something has such overwhelming support and then it gets held up like this,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican.

Mr. Gregg and Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, became so frustrated that last month they wrote a letter telling a colleague that the bill “has been held up in the Senate and is unlikely to pass” in its current form.

In their letter to Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, Mr. Gregg and Mr. Graham asked that their HEROES proposal be slipped into the defense spending bill in the Armed Services Committee, which Mr. Warner leads.

Capitol Hill speculation about the secret hold eventually centered on Mr. Edwards, one of four senators seeking the Democratic nomination for president.

“Apparently, presidential politics got involved,” Mr. Kline said.

One Republican staffer on the Senate education panel said Mr. Edwards is holding up the bill so that he can take top credit for passing it later.

“Edwards likes this issue and he wants to see his name on it,” the staffer said.

Mr. Edwards and his office initially denied responsibility for blocking the bill at all.

“I just talked to Senator Edwards,” Mr. Graham said as he stepped off the Senate floor last week. “He said if he has a hold on it, he didn’t know about it. He didn’t even know about the bill.”

Told last week that everyone involved with the legislation adamantly said that Mr. Edwards put the hold on it, Edwards spokesman Mike Briggs replied, “They’re adamantly wrong.”

Yesterday, however, Mr. Briggs acknowledged that his boss was stalling the bill.

“We support this bill, but Senator Edwards wants his amendment voted on,” he said. “He wants to make a good bill better.”

The Edwards amendment would waive interest accrued by soldiers while engaged in military action and would cost about $10 million per deployment, Mr. Briggs said.

As written, the HEROES Act would extend key elements of current law, which gives the secretary of education the authority to waive student-loan payments for soldiers fighting overseas. The law expires Sept. 30, and the new bill would extend those provisions until 2005.

“This is not a controversial issue,” Mr. Kline said. “I wish I could say I thought of it, but it’s been passed many times before without any problem.”

This internal battle comes while anonymous holds are under growing scrutiny for inviting abuse and fostering political cowardice.

“It’s like guerrilla warfare,” said one Senate staffer trying to move along the HEROES bill.

The “hold” tradition began as a way to give senators more time to evaluate legislation before voting. In recent decades, it has become a tool for covertly blocking legislation.

Senators sometimes use a hold publicly, to gain attention on unrelated matters.

In May, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, and Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, introduced a bill that would require senators to publish their reasons in the Congressional Record within two days of lodging such a hold.

Mr. Wyden told colleagues at a hearing last month that his bill “would bring the anonymous hold out of the shadows of the Senate.”

“It would ensure that the awesome power possessed by an individual senator to stop legislation or a nomination would be accompanied by the sunshine of public accountability,” he said.

The Grassley-Wyden proposal drew broad praise.

“I believe that holds are an affront to the Senate, the leadership, the committees and to the individual members of this institution,” said Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican and chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee.

As for HEROES, Mr. Kline is determined to see his bill pass.

“It’s not fair that [soldiers] suffer an added financial or educational hardship,” he said. “They shouldn’t have to mail in their student-loan payments from Baghdad.”

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