Student loan reform is change we can believe in

The student loan reform that Congress just approved as part of the budget reconciliation bill has been overshadowed by the health insurance reform process, but it’s very good news for future college students. Senator Tom Harkin’s office summarized some benefits in a March 18 press release, which I’ve posted after the jump. The most important change is that the government will stop subsidizing banks that currently make big profits on student lending. Instead, the federal government will expand its direct student loans, saving $61 billion over 10 years. Most of the savings will go to increase Pell grants.

Just a couple of months ago, student loan reform appeared endangered because of Republican obstruction and corporate-friendly Democrats who didn’t want to cut student loan companies like Sallie Mae out of the equation. In early February, the New York Times reported on the extensive lobbying campaign against this bill. (One of the key lobbyists for the banks was Jamie Gorelick, a familiar name from Bill Clinton’s administration.)

Scott Brown’s victory in the Massachusetts Senate election made it even less likely that Democrats could round up 60 votes to overcome a filibuster of student loan reform.

Fortunately, Senator Tom Harkin and other strong supporters of this reform were able to get the measure included in the budget reconciliation bill that was primarily a vehicle for passing “fixes” to health insurance reform. Not only is student loan reform a good idea in itself, I agree with Jon Walker that adding it to the health reform improved the political prospects for getting the reconciliation bill through the Senate. Democrats from several states were said to be balking on the student loan reforms, but only three senators who caucus with Democrats were willing to vote no on yesterday’s reconciliation bill.

This reform is scaled back somewhat from the original proposal, which would have saved $87 billion over 10 years and passed the House of Representatives last September on a mostly party-line vote. The original proposal would have provided larger increases in Pell grant funding, because it was budget neutral. In order to be included in the budget reconciliation measure (and therefore not subject to a Republican filibuster in the Senate), the student loan reform had to reduce the deficit. But that compromise was well worth making in order to move to direct lending by the government.

Regarding health insurance reform, financial regulation and many other issues, I’m one of those “cynics and naysayers” President Obama decried in yesterday’s speech in Iowa City. But this student loan reform is a big step in the right direction, and the Democrats in the White House and Congress who kept pushing for it deserve credit.

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Senate passes reconciliation bill 56-43 (updated with House passage)

Senate Republicans failed to derail passage of the budget reconciliation bill containing changes to the health insurance reform bill and to the student loan program. The vote was 56-43, with all but three Democrats (Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Ben Nelson of Nebraska) voting yes and all Republicans present voting no. The Democratic strategy was to defeat all proposed amendments, so no Democrat offered an amendment to put a public health insurance option in the bill. However, some changes to the part of the bill dealing with Pell grants were made, which means the amended version of the reconciliation bill will have to go back to the House for another vote.

I assume the House will have the votes to pass the amended reconciliation bill. In theory, House Democrats could try to add a public health insurance option, but that would require another vote in the Senate. I think leadership wants to declare victory on this issue and move on.

Speaking of health insurance reform, it turns out the bill Obama just signed had a loophole that will allow insurers to keep denying coverage to children with pre-existing conditions until 2014. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius claims this can be fixed through rule-making, but we’ll see. I suspect insurance companies will be able to work around most of the supposedly tough regulations in the new law. They are guaranteed more than 30 million new customers and face no new competition.

UPDATE: It wasn’t nearly as suspenseful as Sunday’s vote, but the House of Representatives passed the revised budget reconciliation bill Thursday evening by a vote of 220-207 (roll call). Just as on Sunday, all three Iowa Democrats in the House (Bruce Braley, Dave Loebsack, and Leonard Boswell) voted for the bill, while Republicans Tom Latham and Steve King voted against it.

Here’s your laugh for the day: MSNBC’s Chris Matthews still thinks he was right and Representative Alan Grayson was wrong about whether changes to the health care bill could be passed using the budget reconciliation process.

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Weekend open thread with events coming up this week

The coming week will be busy at the state capitol, because February 12 is the first “funnel” date. All bills excluding appropriations bills that have not been approved by at least one committee by February 12 will be dead for the 2010 session, unless something extraordinary happens.

Also, Iowa House Republicans are expected to try to suspend the rules this week to force consideration of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. If last April’s events are any guide, they can expect help from two Iowa House Democrats: Geri Huser and Dolores Mertz. Meanwhile, Mertz is working with a group of Republicans on a constitutional amendment that would “recognize human eggs as persons worthy of legal protection.” Such an amendment would outlaw abortion and probably some forms of birth control as well.

With the compressed legislative calendar and severe budget restraints, there may be fewer bills passed in 2010 than in previous sessions. If you’re keeping your eye on any bill, let us know in this thread. I hope the Iowa Senate Labor and Business Relations Committee will pass Senate File 2112, introduced by Senator Pam Jochum, on “workplace accommodations for employees who express breast milk.” It’s already cleared the subcommittee. Last hear State Representative Ako Abdul-Samad introduced a similar measure in the Iowa House, and I think there’s a decent chance of getting this bill through the House Labor Committee. Employers also benefit from practices that make it easier for their employees to continue breastfeeding.

Jochum is an all-around outstanding legislator. If I lived in the first district, she would definitely have my vote for Congress whenever Bruce Braley decides to run for U.S. Senate.

This thread is for anything on your mind this weekend. Am I the only one out there who doesn’t care who wins the Superbowl?

After the jump I’ve posted details on other Iowa political events scheduled for this week.

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Latham, King vote against student loan reform

The House of Representatives passed the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act on Thursday on a mostly party-line vote of 253 to 171 (roll call here). Iowa Democrats Bruce Braley, Dave Loebsack and Leonard Boswell all voted for the bill, while Republicans Tom Latham and Steve King voted against it.

Click here to download a pdf file containing the House Education and Labor Committee’s estimates on how many students in each Congressional district will be able to receive Pell Grants during the 2010/2011 academic year under this reform. The estimate is 16,355 students in Iowa’s fourth district (Latham) and 16,301 students in Iowa’s fifth district (King).

Overall, just four Democrats voted against the bill: Allen Boyd (FL-02), Paul Kanjorski (PA-11), Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin (SD-AL), and Mike McMahon (NY-13). Six Republicans voted for the bill: Vern Buchanan (FL-13), Joseph Cao (LA-02), Timothy Johnson (IL-15), Tom Petri (WI-06), Todd Platts (PA-19), and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-18). At Congress Matters, David Waldman posted details about the amendments proposed to this bill and which ones passed yesterday.

A press release from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee included these bullet points about the bill:

*The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act is the largest single federal investment in higher education in American history and will also be used to pay down the national debt (H.R. 3221, #719, 9/17/09)

*The measure will make federal student lending more efficient through a variety of reforms that will save the federal government $87 billion. Of those savings, $77 billion will be invested toward making college more affordable and $10 billion will be used to pay down the national debt.

*These savings will be achieved through a number of reforms including:

*Converting federal lending to the Direct Loan Program.

*Establishing a competitive bidding process, allowing the U.S. Department of Education to select lenders based on how well they serve borrowers.

*Allowing non-profit organizations to continue servicing student loans.

*This measure will increase the amount of Pell Grants in 2010 and 2011, lower the interest rates of federally subsidized student loans, expand the Perkins Loan program, and streamline the application form for financial aid.

Senate HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin is committed to passing student loan reforms this year.

UPDATE: Like Latham and King, all the House Republicans from Kentucky voted against this bill, and I agree with RDemocrat’s assessment at the Hillbilly Report:

I think this once again properly demonstrates the hypocrisy of Kentucky Republicans and the Republican Party as a whole. They constantly lecture us on spending, but they care little about money being wasted as long as it is being wasted on corporate welfare. When presented with a chance to both save money, and help working poor children afford college, they would rather waste that $80 billion.

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