WASHINGTON -- Marking the first philosophical convergence of the general election season, likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said on Monday that he supported President Barack Obama's proposal to extend current interest rate levels on federal student loans.
The former Massachusetts governor made his remarks during his first press availability in well over a month. He returned to the podium to offer his support for the idea, after the event ended without a reporter having asked him about it.
"Particularly with the number of college graduates that can't find work and can only find work well beneath their skill level, I fully support the effort to extend the low interest rate on student loans," Romney said. "There was some concern that that would expire halfway through the year and I support extending the temporary relief on interest rates on students as a result of student loans obviously, in part because of the extraordinarily poor conditions in the job market."
The White House has recently made a sustained push to pressure lawmakers into extending the current 3.4 percent interest rate on federal student loans. The rate is set to double to 6.8 percent on July 1, affecting the cost of paying back loans for an estimated 8 million students. Others in the GOP tent, notably former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, have urged Republicans to extend the rates for one more year. The difficult question is how to pay for the extension, which could cost the government $6 billion.
Romney left out that detail. He also neglected to mention his support for Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) budget plan, which would revamp the way interest on student loans is calculated. (The Obama campaign argued Monday that the Ryan plan would effectively double the interest rate on student loans.)
Romney's support for an extension of current policy places pressure on congressional Republicans to resolve the issue before the July deadline. It also suggests that his team of advisers sees this debate as a losing issue. Just moments before he endorsed Obama's position on lower student loan interest rates, Romney pitched himself as the best candidate for the nation's young people, arguing that the economy and national debt would make it harder for the president to recapture the youth vote.
"I think young voters of this country have to vote for me," Romney said.
UPDATE: A reader points out that Romney's willingness to keep student loan interest rates at current levels contradicts the tough talk he offered Ohio voters just one month ago, when he said that the federal government shouldn't be in the business of helping out students.
"It would be popular for me to stand up and say, 'I'm going to give you government money to pay for your college,' but I’m not going to promise that," he said in March. "And don’t expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on."