House Speaker John Boehner assured reporters today that bipartisan deals are near on two pieces of legislation that must be passed before expiration on Saturday.
The two bills, one to prevent the federal student loan interest rate from doubling, and the other to extend surface transportation funding for two years, have been tied up in Congress for months. The Senate has taken the lead on forging a student loan compromise, while there’s a House-Senate conference committee on the transportation bill. In order to get both of these measures passed quickly before the deadline, they will probably have to be combined into one package and voted out of Congress by the weekend.
There has been progress on both fronts in recent days. Senate leaders of both parties announced a deal that would keep student loan rates in place at 3.4% for another year. It would be paid for through a mix of measures from both sides:
The extension would be paid for by raising premiums for federal pension insurance, an idea acceptable to businesses because rules on how companies calculate their pension liabilities would be changed. A senior Democratic aide said the pension proposals, which came from Reid, would generate $5.5 billion.
Meanwhile, students would be limited in how long they could receive a federally subsidized loan to 150 percent of their program length — so, six years for a four-year undergraduate degree — a suggestion from Republicans. The aide said that proposal would raise $1.2 billion.
Given the paltry amount of savings from the limits on student loan length – that’s $1.2 billion over 10 years – this probably doesn’t affect a lot of students. But part-time students could have trouble keeping loans and finishing their degree on time.
As for the transportation bill, today is the drop-dead date when it must be finalized. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid put the prospects of passage at better than 50/50, and Boehner’s words today bolster that assessment. But there are still some outstanding issues on the bill, including a possible power play:
Among the biggest among of the agenda items is the House proposal to include a mandate forcing the Obama administration to approve the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline.
A supporter of the pipeline in the Senate, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), said to The Hill on Tuesday that the possible combination of the transportation funding bill with the student loan issue did not forestall the inclusion of Keystone in the final bicameral compromise.
“The more interest you can satisfy, the more likely you are to get a bill,” Graham said when asked of the possibility the bills could be combined.
It’s pretty clear what Graham is getting at. Putting Keystone XL into a bill combined with student loan rates would make it harder for Democrats, who favor freezing the rates, to say no. However, the transportation bill is being negotiated on a separate track in the conference committee, so we’ll have to see how that transpires.
If no deal gets reached on the transportation bill today, we will probably see a short-term extension, perhaps for 90 days, appended to the student loan bill.