How widely favored student loans became a political football

House Speaker Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio on April 27, 2012.
House Speaker Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio on April 27, 2012.
CBS News

(CBS News) WASHINGTON - The latest battle in Washington is over student loans, of all things. It's a nasty fight, involving President Obama, Mitt Romney and Congressional leaders.

If Congress doesn't take action, interest rates for student loans will double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1. CBS correspondent Nancy Cordes reports from the Capitol.

Keeping student loan rates low is something most members say they support and yet only 13 Democrats voted Friday for the House Republican-backed bill, which President Obama has threatened to veto.

House passes student loan bill
WH threatens veto on student loan bill because of health reform repeal
Romney on Obama: Appearances aren't reality

Both sides are accusing the other of playing dirty.

"This is the latest plank in the so-called war on women," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

To understand how a debate about student loans turned into a fight over women's health, you have to go back to Tuesday, when the President embarked on a trip to three universities, urging Congress to keep federal student loan rates from doubling in July.

"Stopping this from happening should be a no-brainer," Mr. Obama said.

Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, weighed in - in agreement.

"I fully support the effort to extend the low interest rate on student loans," he said.

So, House Republicans quickly introduced loan legislation, and Boehner insisted they had intended to all along.

"To pick this political fight where there is no fight is just silly," Boehner said. "Give me a break."

More than 7 million low- and middle-income students rely on the loans. Keeping the rates low for one more year would cost $5.9 billion.

The Republican bill that passed narrowly Friday would take that money from a wellness fund set up by the president's health care law, angering some Democrats.

"What do they do?" asked House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. "They say OK, we won't allow it to double but we're going to take the money from women's health."

But Republicans note Democrats themselves voted to dip into in that fund last year to pay for an extension of the payroll tax cut.

"What we're talking about is using a slush fund that is provided to the secretary to spend as she sees fit," said Republican Rep. John Kline of Minnesota.

Republicans say Democrats are making a cynical ploy to attract young voters and women voters at the same time. Democrats say this bill should be paid for by closing oil and gas subsidies.

The Senate has yet to act, so the fight is far from over.

  • Nancy Cordes
    Nancy Cordes On Twitter»

    Nancy Cordes is CBS News' congressional correspondent.