TOPICS > Politics

Deadlines Looming, Congress Corners Deal on Student Loans, Transportation

June 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
With two key pieces of legislation set to expire this weekend, Congress is scrambling to reach a bipartisan deal that will keep student loan rates low and authorize federal funding for transportation projects. Judy Woodruff discusses what's at stake with Todd Zwillich of The Takeaway from Public Radio International.

JEFFREY BROWN: Faced with a pair of weekend deadlines, congressional leaders neared a resolution today on disagreements over student loan interest rates and transportation funding.

Judy Woodruff has the story.

MAN: Washington, D.C., June 27, 2012.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the Capitol this morning, leaders from both parties were sounding hopeful. The Senate’s Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid, opened the day’s business.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Majority Leader: I am cautiously optimistic that we can end this week — tomorrow, even, with a little bit of luck — but we may not be able to, and we will have to see what happens in the next 24 hours, which will be key.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On the House side, Republican Speaker John Boehner echoed that sentiment.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), Speaker of the House: We’re moving, I think, towards an agreement on a transportation bill that would also include a one-year fix on the student loan rate increase scheduled to go into effect July the 1st. A lot of work that has gone into this. It’s not finished yet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Later came word of a tentative House-Senate deal. It would prevent the interest rate on federally backed student loans from doubling to 6.8 percent as of Sunday, July 1. It would affect 7.4 million students.

The measure would be attached to a two-year extension of transportation funding. It was reported that Republicans dropped demands for immediate action on building the Keystone oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The president has delayed the project for further environmental study.

Joining us now to help us understand what’s next is Todd Zwillich of “The Takeaway” from Public Radio International and WNYC.

Welcome back.

TODD ZWILLICH, “The Takeaway,” Public Radio International: Good to be with you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So this is a bulletin. The two parties actually may be reaching an agreement on something.

TODD ZWILLICH: On two things, in fact, that are both expiring, and one thing, the transportation bill, a bona fide jobs bill.

It’s amazing what Congress can accomplish when things are expiring and when it’s time for a vacation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Democrats have been saying this is a jobs bill. Have Republicans finally agreed with that or is there another rationale?

TODD ZWILLICH: Well, I think the Republicans always agreed that it was a jobs bill. There were significant policy differences.

Look, everything gets stamped a jobs bill in this economy in Congress. Oh, we have a tax cut, that’s a jobs bill. We have another bill over here, that’s a jobs bill. The highway bill, this transportation bill really is a jobs bill. It’s a bona fide jobs bill. Money goes directly to states. They spend it on federal highway projects, they hire contractors, lots of workers. The construction industry is really hurting. It is a jobs bill.

What has really been remarkable about this bill is that this bona fide jobs bill throughout the recent history of Congress has always had bipartisan buy-in. Every district has a stake. Every member has a stake. Their constituents have a stake. The unions like it. The Chamber of Commerce likes it. The National Association of Manufacturers, the big hitters, they all like it.

They all liked it this time, too, but again we have talked all year about the conservative Republican House, the unusually conservative Tea Party and freshmen and conservative Republican House who aren’t playing the normal ball games. The Senate passed its highway bill with 74 votes, broad bipartisan consensus. And it was the House that could never get it together, could never get a bill, and they never passed a bill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the House leadership wasn’t until now able to get the conservatives to come on board.

TODD ZWILLICH: They may not be on board. They’re going to have to approve this conference report if and when it comes. We will see how many of the conservatives really vote for it. The Democrats will vote for it. A large chunk of John Boehner’s Republicans will vote for it, but not all of them.

And we will see in the end, without an agreement with the Keystone pipeline. As you said in the piece, that is not included in this deal. The Republicans gave in on it. That won’t be in there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why did they give in on that?

TODD ZWILLICH: The Republicans say they gave in because the Democrats’ price for including Keystone, which would have been a political broadside at the president in an election year, was more government spending.

Really, what happened in this case was that without passing a bill of their own, the House Republicans didn’t have a great deal of leverage with the Senate, which, again, passed with 74 votes, Republicans and Democrats together. The Senate had a great deal more leverage in this negotiation. The Senate didn’t want it. The House Republican leaders did, and ultimately had to deal it away in order to get a bill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, meanwhile, on the student loan, the interest rates will not double.

TODD ZWILLICH: For a year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How did that come together?

TODD ZWILLICH: That came together with an expiring deadline. Republicans have been frustrated over this because they have been making offer upon offer upon offer on how to pay for it. It’s a relatively small bill. It’s $6 billion over a year. It’s not that much.

Republicans have been offering pay-fors from the president’s own budget. Democrats have been balking, and Republicans complain Democrats are just milking this for some political messaging. They like to call us obstructionists. The president is running against Congress, so why not milk it a bit and make Republicans seem like they’re not for something that they’re ready to agree to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, now, meanwhile, Todd Zwillich, Republicans in the House poised to make history tomorrow by holding a member of the president’s Cabinet in contempt. Tell us where that stands.

TODD ZWILLICH: That stands on the precipice of a vote tomorrow.

There is a congressional picnic, Judy, this evening on the lawn of the White House, traditional picnic. Eric Holder is attending, and won’t that be a little bit awkward with Republican members of the House?

JUDY WOODRUFF: The attorney general.

TODD ZWILLICH: That’s right, the attorney general, because tomorrow they are scheduled for the first time to hold a member of the Cabinet in contempt. That vote is going forward.

There are no signs that it will abate. There were some last-minute negotiations yesterday between White House officials and representatives of the House Republican leadership trying to make some last-minute deals on documents related to this Fast and Furious gun-walking program that the ATF was following and botched last year that resulted in the death of a border agent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you were just saying to me, just quickly, Todd, a minute ago that, at this point, Republicans in the House say they do not have any evidence that the attorney general agreed.

TODD ZWILLICH: Investigations Chairman Darrell Issa said that in front of the Rules Committee. He has no evidence nor do they allege that Eric Holder knew anything about the operation of Fast and Furious.

This contempt proceeding technically is because Holder has refused to comply with a subpoena related only from February to December of last year, failure to produce documents. Interestingly, that hasn’t stopped the National Rifle Association from saying they’re going to score this vote and keep track of which members vote for it and against it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which will, of course, affect what some Democrats do.

TODD ZWILLICH: Highly political.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And all this happening on the day tomorrow, Todd, that the Supreme Court will come out with pivotal health care rulings. And you were saying the timing of this is — will in effect mean that it’s — mean what, that House leadership has done this on purpose?

TODD ZWILLICH: Well, they say that this is a matter of scheduling. They hadn’t scheduled this even when we weren’t sure if the ruling was going to come out on Monday.

The ruling tomorrow on the Affordable Care Act is a banner election issue. It is going to be the biggest political story of the summer, if the not the year, until the election itself. And, yes, you can call it coincidence our not, but the contempt vote against Eric Holder, which some conservatives want, the House leadership maybe not so much, will be part of the same news day.

And you can call that buried, if you want to. We will be talking more about health care tomorrow than we will about an unprecedented contempt vote against the attorney general.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I have a feeling you’re right.

Todd Zwillich of “The Takeaway,” thanks very much.

TODD ZWILLICH: My pleasure.