Vote on student aid cuts delayed until February

A maneuver by Senate Democrats on Dec. 21 sent a budget bill containing $12.7 billion in cuts to federal student aid programs back to the House of Representatives, prolonging campaigns by student lobbyist groups to defeat the bill into the new year.

The Senate passed the bill, which proposes approximately $40 billion in cuts to federal mandatory spending programs, 51-50 during its final session of 2005. Vice President Dick Cheney cut a trip to the Middle East short to return to Washington and cast the tie-breaking vote.

However, Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota had two provisions removed from the bill, requiring it to be sent back to the House for another vote, effectively blocking the issue from being decided in 2005. The House is tentatively scheduled to vote on the legislation Feb. 1.

The current version of the bill, called a budget reconciliation bill, redirects almost $13 billion from subsidy payments that parents and students make to lenders and increases the cap on parent loan interest rates from 7.9 percent to 8.5 percent. The bill does, however propose spending $3.7 billion for grants to math, science and foreign language students, and lower origination fees for some student borrowers over five years.

The battle in the Senate was just the latest chapter in over two months of political jockeying as Congressional Republican leaders attempt to push through budget cutting legislation that is unanimously opposed by Democrats and tepidly supported at best by many moderate Republicans.

The bill proposes cuts to several federal social programs, including food stamps and Medicaid, but cuts to student loan programs represent about a third of the cuts, the largest cuts in the cost-saving package.

Of particular concern to many of the budget reconciliation bill’s opponents is that it is intended to work in tandem with a tax cutting package worth $50 billion or more that will primarily impact wealthy Americans.

The House held a midnight session in November in which their version of the bill passed by just two votes, 217-215. But the bill’s arrival back in the Senate only further vexed its supporters, as some Republican senators who had previously supported the bill, including Gordon Smith of Oregon, opposed some provisions included in the House version.

As the debate over the bill drags on, it has also created a marathon of campaign work for student lobbyist organizations that have been working to defeat the student loan program cuts.

“This has been a long process for us,” said Jayme Rabenberg, a field organizer for the Oregon Student Association, a state student advocacy organization that opposes the student loan program cuts. “It’s unusual for something to pick and slow down again like this has.”

Other groups including the State Public Interest Research Group’s Higher Education Project and the United States Student Association, OSA’s parent organization, have continued campaigns against the legislation as well, bouncing phone calling and letter-writing campaigns back and forth between the House and the Senate.

Portland State students are also still participating in phone call campaigns against the bill, according to student body President Erin Devaney.

Oregon’s four Democrat representatives all oppose the bill, and Republican Greg Walden is considered unlikely to change his support, but Devaney said that students could still target representatives from other states based on how they voted on the bill last time.

Devaney still remains optimistic that the cuts could be defeated.

“Each time this has come up for a vote, the vote has narrowed and narrowed,” Devaney said.