By Jim Kuhnhenn, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional Democrats want a stalled overhaul of college aid programs to get strapped onto a fast-track health care bill, giving both Obama administration priorities a better chance of passage.
The student loan measure would be the biggest change in college assistance programs since Congress created them in the 1960s. The bill would end federal subsidies to private lenders and have the government originate all loans to needy students.
Democrats in the House and Senate were working to incorporate the legislation, which passed the House last September but got bogged down in the Senate, into a single, expedited budget bill that could pass in the Senate with a simple majority.
After a presidency marked by stalemate, the strategy would give President Barack Obama the best opportunity to achieve simultaneous victories on two of his top priorities in a single, swift act of Congress.
Consolidating the college aid package with health care would create a double sweetener for Democrats. It would make it easier to pass the college aid plan in the Senate, where it seemed unable to muster 60 votes to overcome procedural hurdles. And it would give House Democrats a popular incentive to ease their anxieties over voting for health care changes.
The health care bill "is a controversial, difficult bill for a lot of people," said Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J. "The more things that you can go home and say were in the bill that are sort of universally popular, yeah, it helps."
Sen. Tom Harkin, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said lawmakers had an opportunity for a "twin victory" by joining the student loan measure to the health care package.
And White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the budget package, known as a "reconciliation bill," would be a means to pass the student aid plan. "This is an important reform for the president," he said.
To ease the way for the far-reaching health care legislation, Democrats have had to resort to a fast-track process. The House would pass an already approved Senate version of the bill, then use a separate measure to make changes more to their liking. Under the special process, Senate Democrats could approve that second "fix-it" bill with a simple majority.