WASHINGTON - An emerging deal to lower interest rates on student loans took shape Thursday, offering Democrats promises that interest rates would not reach 10 per cent and giving Republicans a link between borrowing terms and the financial markets.
Lawmakers and their aides were in talks about how they might reduce rates on subsidized Stafford loans, which doubled to 6.8 per cent last week in the wake of congressional inaction.
Efforts to restore those rates to 3.4 per cent were abandoned in favour of a new compromise that bears many similarities with a bill that House Republicans have passed, and with President Barack Obama's budget proposal.
"There is no question that there is a compromise available on this important issue and that the sides have not been that far apart and we just need to get it done," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
"We have been working with lawmakers to make that compromise happen. We need to make sure that students don't see their rates double," he said.
Under the plan lawmakers are considering, interest rates on new loans would be based on the 10-year Treasury note, plus an additional percentage to pay for administrative costs. The proposal includes a limit on how high rates could climb, a demand Democrats said was a deal-breaker.
Undergraduate students would see better terms than the current 6.8 per cent rate but could face higher costs if the economy improves and Treasury notes become more expensive. Rates for students this fall would be around 4 per cent and would be capped at 8.25 per cent in future years.
Graduate students and parents could find better deals next year but again would face higher rates than the current 7.9 per cent. Borrowing for those PLUS loans would be around 6 per cent this fall and capped at 9.25 per cent in coming years.
Lawmakers were working on specific rates, but both parties were in rough agreement on the numbers. They were waiting for the Congressional Budget Office to check their math to make sure the proposal did not cost taxpayers or generate too much profit.
Serious talk of a compromise came just hours after Democratic-led efforts to restore the 3.4 per cent interest rates failed once more to overcome a procedural hurdle in the Senate. After several failures to find a stopgap measure, Democrats abandoned that tactic and instead looked for a way to lower rates for students before the return to campus this fall.
Obama's chief of staff, Denis McDonough, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan met with lawmakers Tuesday night to discuss possible options, including the market-based approach Obama included in his budget outline. Democrats insisted they try one last time to restore the 3.4 per cent rate.
After that failed, lawmakers turned to a compromise approach and met Wednesday in the office of Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to discuss the next steps. White House education and budget advisers joined those conversations and helped guide lawmakers to the proposal under consideration.
Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, joined negotiations on a potential deal he previously called unacceptable. He secured concessions on rate caps from the main authors of an earlier potential compromise, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Angus King, I-Maine.
All said they were willing to tinker with some of the details to make it more acceptable to Harkin and his Democratic allies.
Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, the top Republican on the Senate committee, joined in and suggested he could bring with him Republican votes that would help overcome a 60-vote procedural hurdle in the chamber.
"We must focus our attention now on a long-term solution such as the president supports, the House of Representatives has passed and a group of Republican, Democratic and independent senators have proposed," Alexander said.
A deal could be announced as early as Thursday, and a vote could be scheduled as quickly as Tuesday.
The House has approved legislation that links rates to the markets. Aides said differences between the two proposals were not that significant and suggested they could quickly be worked out.
If fresh negotiations prove fruitless, millions of students returning to campus next month will find borrowing terms twice as high as when school let out. Without congressional action in the coming weeks, the increase could mean an extra $2,600 for an average student returning to campus this fall, according to Congress' Joint Economic Committee.
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