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Senate Republicans block vote on student loan interest rates

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Commencement May 5 at the University of Tennessee (Ashlee Culverhouse/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP)

Senate Republicans Tuesday afternoon blocked the advancement of a Democratic bill to extend the current student loan interest rate over objections to how the measure will be funded.

Members voted 52 to 45 to block cloture on the bill, which would hold Stafford student loan interest rates for an estimated 7.4 million students at 3.4 percent instead of allowing them to double in July. The Democrats' $6 billion bill would be funded by closing a tax loophole, thereby raising Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes on select wealthy stockholders of private companies—hence the Republican opposition.

The vote works to Democrats' advantage, allowing them to craft a narrative that suggests Republicans oppose helping students.

"They're sending a clear message they would rather protect wealthy tax dodgers than help promising students achieve their dreams of higher education," Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday on the Senate floor prior to the vote.

But Republicans do want to extend the interest rate, and it's just as politically advantageous for them as it is for Democrats to make it a reality.

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Republicans used their floor time Tuesday to accuse Democrats of letting politics stand in the way of real action. "Today's vote on student loan rates is a perfect example of this cynical election-year strategy in action. Rather than working with Republicans to help young people in this country weather the effects of the Obama economy, Democrats have sought to distract them from it," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday morning.

Democrats and the White House are eager to use the issue of student loans to appeal to young voters during the 2012 election. During a speech to students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill last month, the president shared his own student loan woes.

"Check this out, all right. I'm the president of the United States. We only finished paying off our student loans off about eight years ago," he told the audience.

The Republican-led House passed its own measure to fix the student loan interest rate on April 27. That measure cut the Prevention and Public Health Fund in the president's health care law in order to pay for the extension—a decision that led to a veto threat from President Barack Obama and left the legislation with little hope of advancement beyond the House. Republicans have been requesting a Senate vote on the proposal.

With both sides desiring the same outcome on a very politically contentious issue, it's very possible that the student loan interest rate issue could force Congress to work together this year to reach a compromise.

Absent an extension, interest rates are set to rise July 1.

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