The House will vote Friday to extend current rates on federally funded college loans for one year, Speaker John Boehner announced on Wednesday in what is seen as an attempt to blunt President Barack Obama's momentum on an issue popular with young voters.
Boehner said the extension will be paid for with funds from the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration's signature health-care law.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, accused House Republicans of paying "lip service" to the issue, and argued the way they pay for keeping the rates low would hurt middle-class Americans.
"They are yet again asking working families to pay the price instead of closing tax loopholes that benefit special interests," Van Hollen said in a written statement. House Democrats introduced their own measure, which would cancel tax subsidies for big oil companies as a way to pay for freezing student loan rates at current levels.
And Rep. George Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said Boehner's plan amounted to "robbing Peter to pay Peter."
"The Republican bill strips away vital funding for breast and cervical cancer screenings for women," the California congressman said in a written statement on the plan. "It strips funding for increasing child immunization and for screening newborns for things like hearing loss. In other words, the Republican bill will directly hurt women and children."
It's unclear whether Senate Democrats or the White House will accept the Republican plan.
This week the president has been hammering congressional Republicans in front of college audiences in three swing states, Iowa, Colorado and North Carolina. He has said Republicans are threatening to let the rate on student loans double.
On Wednesday, Obama took on Boehner by name, telling students at the University of Iowa a spokesman in the speaker's office believed the president's focus on student loans is an effort to "distract people from the economy."
The president told a rowdy audience, "Now think about that for a second, because these guys don't get it." He told the cheering crowd, "If you do well, the economy does well. This is about the economy. What economy are they talking about? You are the economy."
A few hours later, Boehner announced a bill, the Friday vote and hit back at the president saying, "This week the president is campaigning and trying to invent a fight where there is none and never has been on this issue of student loans."
The rate on federally subsidized student loans is set to double to 6.8% on July 1 unless Congress passes a bill to extend the current rate at 3.4%. On Tuesday night, Democratic Sens. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Sherrod Brown of Ohio introduced a Democratic proposal. It would freeze the current interest rate for one year and pay for it by closing a loophole on "S corporations," a tax structure Democrats say can be used to avoid paying Social Security and Medicare taxes.
The Republican proposal also extends the current rate for one year, but it covers the $5.9 billion cost by dipping into a fund in the Affordable Care Act called The Prevention and Public Health Fund. According to health.gov, the fund is intended to promote wellness, prevent disease and protect against public health emergencies.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called Boehner's move a "dramatic reversal."
"Just last week, House Republicans overwhelmingly voted again for the (Rep. Paul) Ryan budget, which doubles the interest rate on student loans," she said.
The president has been rallying young audiences by talking about the pending increase in student loan interest rates. Young voters are a crucial demographic for Obama, particularly in swing states.