WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives advanced a bill Friday that funds cheaper student loans by cutting a preventive health care program -- sparking a heated battle in which House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) accused Democrats of manufacturing a war on women.
The House passed the bill by a vote of 215 to 195, with 30 Republicans bucking their party to oppose the bill, and 13 Democrats voting in favor. Democrats might have blocked the measure if they had stayed together. The interest rate for federally subsidized student loans is scheduled to jump from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent for some 7.4 million students on July 1 if Congress does not act.
Republicans had voted earlier in the week for a budget that allowed the rate to go up, but under public pressure offered a plan Wednesday to preserve the rate by cutting the Prevention and Public Health Fund created in President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. Republicans say the move would save $6 billion.
Calling the health program -- which aims to lower health care costs by encouraging prevention -- a "slush fund," Boehner said its funding should be used to help students instead.
The White House threatened to veto the bill Friday, and House Democrats objected as well, arguing that the $11.9 billion program (already cut from $16 billion) funds things like cancer screening, child immunizations and programs designed to help people quit smoking and eat right.
They also argued that the Republicans' choice of that funding stream to pay for low loan rates showed the GOP doesn't really want to pass the bill.
"Make no mistake ... our Republican colleagues haven't changed their minds about this, they've changed their tactics," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). "If they really wanted to stop student loans from increasing, they wouldn't seek to cover the cost by cutting funds for cervical cancer screening, by cutting funds for breast cancer screening, but cutting other women's health care measures. They wouldn't push a measure the president has already said he will veto."
Republicans stood by the "slush fund" description, however, and argued that money would still remain for screening and prevention programs.
"All of these things are going to continue to receive base discretionary funding," said Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) "All these programs are going to remain in existence, so how can you come come down to the floor and constantly say we're going to cut? The slush fund will not affect women, families and children."
Several Democrats noted that while the student loan measure would not cost all of the $11.9 billion that would be saved if the health care program is cut, the GOP intends to slash the remainder of the money from its budget. The House blocked a Democratic alternative that would have paid for the student loan bill by taking away tax subsidies for oil companies.
Boehner accused Democrats of being the ones to play political games, saying they were making the student loan battle part of a phony war on women.
"How in the world did we ever get here? Think about this -- a fight being picked over an issue that everyone knew was going to get resolved," Boehner said. "Nobody wants to see student interest rates go up."
But he contended that Democrats wanted to score points with the issue by opposing the cuts to the health program, and he mocked their contention that the Republican stance was more evidence of an anti-women bent in the GOP.
"Why do people insist that we have a political fight?" Boehner said. "People want to politicize this because it's an election year, but my God, do we have to fight about everything?
"Now we're going to have a fight over women's health. Give me a break," Boehner said to cheers from his side. "This is the latest plank in the so-called war on women entirely created by my colleagues across the aisle for political gain.
"To accuse us of wanting to cut women's health is absolutely not true," he said. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is beneath us, this is beneath the dignity of this House."
But Democrats said the political maneuvering was coming from the GOP, and maintained that Republicans were indeed trying to cut a program that would help thousands of women.
"They're using the student loan issue to drive their agenda. I find that very cynical. I find that in fact quite repulsive," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). "They're not looking for a better way. They're just looking for a way to cover their rear ends."
The Senate is expected to bring up its version of the bill next month. It will be paid for by closing a tax loophole on S-corporations.