WASHINGTON -- Republicans and Democrats on Wednesday laid down competing, partisan visions of how to maintain affordable student loan rates, with the GOP aiming to eliminate a health care measure and Democrats looking to tax people like Newt Gingrich.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said that Democrats, by accusing the GOP of seeking to let student loan rates double to 6.8 percent in July, were trying to create a phony campaign issue. He argued that both parties want to help young Americans, but then proposed paying for the estimated $6 billion cost by killing a provision in the health care reform law.
"We will pay for this by taking money for this from one of the slush funds in the president's health care law," Boehner told reporters on Capitol Hill, announcing that the House would vote on his plan Friday.
He was referring to the Prevention and Public Health Fund, the purpose of which is to encourage people to take better care of themselves, thereby saving money down the road. The fund is one of the most popular targets for the GOP, and it is already set for elimination in the House budget plan at an estimated savings of $11.9 billion over 10 years.
Democrats in the Senate offered their own competing plan to help the 7.4 million students who would be affected if the loan rates rose. They would close what they dubbed the "Gingrich/Edwards Loophole," which lets certain well-off professionals avoid Medicare taxes. If a lawyer or consultant, say, organizes as an S-corporation, he can take a small portion of his earnings as salary -- on which he pays Medicare taxes -- and declare the rest to be profits of the corporation -- on which he does not pay Medicare taxes. Former House Speaker Gingrich and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) have both benefited from the loophole. Gingrich saved $69,000 with that strategy in 2010.
President Barack Obama, meanwhile, has spent the last two days visiting colleges inveighing against Congress for the possible lapse of the lower student loan rates.
"Congress needs to act right now to prevent interest rates on federal student loans from shooting up and shaking you down," Obama declared Wednesday in Iowa. "Stopping this from happening should be a no-brainer," he said, coughing and then ad-libbing, "It makes me sick just thinking about it."
Obama also mocked Republicans over a Senate candidate who compared the student loan program to "the equivalent of the stage three cancer of socialism."
"Stage-three cancer?" Obama said to the University of Iowa crowd. "I don't know where to start. What do you mean? What are you talking about? Come on. Just when you think you've heard it all in Washington, somebody comes up with a new way to go off the deep end."
Republicans didn't appreciate the rhetoric, which came shortly before Boehner unveiled his proposal, and accused Obama of politicizing an issue that didn't need it and of picking a fight where there was none to be had.
"What Washington shouldn't be doing is exploiting the challenges that young Americans face for political gain," Boehner said. "Let's fix the problem for young Americans, and leave the campaign theatrics for the fall."
Asked if he was politicizing the issue himself, Boehner responded with a derisive "Please!"
"It's a reasonable response to deal with a problem the Democrats themselves created," he said.
A spokesman for Senate Democrats said they opposed Boehner's plan.
The health fund in question was used earlier as a "pay-for." About $5 billion of it went to fund the bill that extended the payroll tax cut earlier this year. Democrats agreed to that because they felt it left enough cash on hand for the fund to keep working and because the health care law resupplies the fund. Boehner's pay-for would likely render the fund useless.