WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's travels around the country to promote a student loan bill are "pathetic," House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) charged on Thursday, accusing the White House of staging campaign trips at the expense of taxpayers.
Democrats shot back that Obama was doing "just what a president should be."
The issue at hand is the looming July 1 doubling of student loan interest rates to 6.8 percent if Congress fails to act. All sides say the hike should be prevented, but the GOP-led House is pushing a way to pay for lower rates that Democrats and the White House oppose -- by gutting one of Obama's health care initiatives.
The president has taken the case directly to students, visiting campuses in Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina in the last few days. All those are crucial swing states, and Obama's audiences were made up of young voters, who were so crucial to his 2008 victory.
That prompted the Republican Party to file a complaint with the Government Accountability Office on Wednesday. On Thursday, Boehner savaged the trips, arguing there was no need for the president to take the issue to the people because the GOP wants to keep the student loan rates low, too.
"The president traveled across the country on the taxpayers' dime ... insisting that Congress fix a problem that we were already working on. Frankly, I believe this is beneath the dignity of the White House," Boehner said. "For the president to make a campaign issue out of this and then to travel to three battleground states and go to three large college campuses on taxpayers' money to try to make this a political issue is pathetic."
Boehner added that Obama's campaign should reimburse the Treasury for the trips, including the $179,000-an-hour cost of Air Force One. "This is the biggest job in the world, and I've never seen a president make it smaller," said Boehner.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) argued that Boehner's criticism was just politics.
"You go back eight years ago -- they always raise the same hue and cry: The president shouldn't be campaigning as president," Reid said, adding that the White House pays extremely careful attention to travel details. "Just like President Bush did. It's all in the rules."
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) went further, arguing that the GOP was standing in the way of the student loan rate extension by offering a poison pill to pay for it, and therefore the president was doing his job.
"This is a legitimate issue to millions of American college students," Schumer said. "To travel around the country and bring it up when the other side is blocking it, that's what the founding fathers envisioned. That's just what the president should be doing."
Democrats want to pay for the loan bill by closing loopholes that let well-off doctors, lawyers and consultants avoid payroll taxes by declaring themselves S-corporations. Democrats say it's an idea the GOP has backed before and deny they are trying to turn student loans into a political fight.
"If we wanted to be, quote, political about this, we would have paid for it with the Buffett Rule," Schumer said, referring to the recent failed attempt to tax million-dollar earners at 30 percent.
UPDATE: 3:17 p.m. -- White House spokesman Eric Schultz argued that the trips by President Obama that the GOP criticized were, in fact, official business and that they had worked to get Congress moving.
"This week's travel has been part of the president’s official responsibility to get outside of Washington, D.C., hear from students, and discuss stopping interest rates on their loans from doubling in July -- an effort, that with Congress now taking action, looks to have been effective," Schultz said. "But like Friday's trip to Fort Stewart in Hinesville, Ga., to meet with troops, veterans and military families, this travel is part of the president’s official responsibilities. When there is political travel, we follow all rules and regulations that all other administrations of both parties have followed."
An Associated Press story on Thursday found that Democrats have reimbursed some $1.5 million for political aspects of the president's travel -- more than the $1.3 million that the George W. Bush administration paid over his entire 2004 reelection campaign for travels on Air Force One, including a high-profile stop in Boehner's Ohio.
Michael McAuliff covers politics and Congress for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the federal agency with which the GOP had filed a complaint about the president's travels. It was the Government Accountability Office.