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House approves Republican-backed student loan proposal

WASHINGTON -- The congressional debate over extending a student loan program erupted into another fierce, and sometimes testy, partisan battle in Congress Friday, with Democrats and Republicans angrily accusing each other of exploiting the issue for political gain.

House GOP leaders set aside a Democratic proposal authored by Representative John Tierney that sought to finance the $5.6 billion program extension by stripping some tax breaks for oil and gas companies.

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Instead, the House approved by a 215-195 margin a largely Republican-backed proposal to extend college loan subsidies by siphoning funding from health care programs authorized by the president’s health care overhaul legislation. President Obama would likely veto the measure, according to the White House.

If Congress does not intervene, interest rates will rise for 7 million college students, including 177,000 attending colleges in Massachusetts, who take part in the Stafford loan program. Interest rates for college loans are expected to double in July -- from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent -- if Congress does not intervene.

With so many recent college graduates unable to find jobs because of the faltering economy, Congress lowered the interest rates in 2007 to save a typical graduate an average of $1,000 in interest payments. In 2010, graduating college seniors had an average of $25,250 in college loan debts, according to data from the Project on Student Debt.

Massachusetts ranked 12th in the country in student debt load, with the typical student amassing $25,541 in debt.

Tierney, a Salem Democrat, led his party on the House floor in denouncing the GOP proposal, which Democrats said amounted to an assault on the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans have sought to repeal.

“If we really want to set aside partisanship and do this, let’s pick a pay-for that the American people can get behind, that we can agree on,” Tierney said on the House floor. “Let’s put aside cynicism. Let’s stop playing games.”

The Republican proposal would in effect repeal the Prevention and Public Health Fund, which provides services including screenings for breast and cervical cancer.

House Speaker John Boehner, during a floor speech that generated loud applause from his side of the aisle, accused Democrats of creating a political fight.

“My God, do we have to fight about everything?” Boehner said, his voice rising.

The GOP proposal has virtually no chance in the Democratically controlled Senate.

“House Republicans have put us on a collision course so more than seven million students would be facing rate hikes come July. Jacking up loan rates on our students while cutting taxes for millionaires isn’t right,” said Senator John F. Kerry, a Bay State Democrat.

Senator Scott Brown earlier this week said he supports extending the loan subsidy, but has not specified how it should be paid for.

In advance of the House debate, the White House signaled that President Obama would likely veto the GOP House bill. “This is a politically-motivated proposal and not the serious response that the problem facing America’s college students deserves,” the White House said in a statement.

Bobby Caina Calvan can be reached at bobby.calvan@globe.com.
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