WASHINGTON — Republicans defied a veto threat and the House voted Friday to prevent federal loan costs from doubling for millions of college students. The vote gave the GOP a momentary election-year triumph on a bill that has become enmeshed in partisan battles over the economy, women's issues and President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
The measure's 215-195 passage was largely symbolic because the package is going nowhere in the Democratic-dominated Senate. Both parties agree students' interest costs should not rise, but they are clashing along a familiar fault line over how to cover the $5.9 billion tab: Republicans want spending cuts and Democrats want higher revenues.
Friday's vote underscored how with Election Day just over six months away, much of Congress' work and passion can be aimed as much at political positioning as it is at writing law. Both parties want to show they are trying to help college students and their families cope in today's unforgiving economy and, when possible, force their opponents to cast votes that might create fodder for TV attack ads.
The GOP bill would keep interest rates for subsidized Stafford loans at 3.4 percent for another year, rather than automatically growing to 6.8 percent on July 1 as they would under a law enacted five years ago by a Democratic Congress. The increase would affect 7.4 million students and, the Obama administration says, cost each an average $1,000 over the life of their loans.
Democrats trained their fire on the Republican plan to pay for the bill by abolishing a preventive health fund created by Obama's 2010 revamping of the health care system. Democrats said that program especially helped women by allocating money for cancer screening and other initiatives and that eliminating it was only the latest GOP blow against women — a charge Republicans hotly contested.
"Give me a break," roared House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to rousing cheers from Republican lawmakers. "This is the latest plank in the so-called war on women, entirely created by my colleagues across the aisle for political gain."
Democrats voted solidly earlier this year to take money from the preventive health fund to help keep doctors' Medicare reimbursements from dropping. Obama's own budget in February proposed cutting $4 billion from the same fund to pay for some of his priorities.
Since the early days of this year's GOP presidential contest, Democrats have been accusing Republicans of targeting women by advocating curbs on contraceptives and other policies. Polls show women leaning heavily toward Obama and Democrats would like to stoke that margin.
In its veto message, the White House argued that "women in particular" would be helped by the prevention fund and added, "This is a politically motivated proposal and not the serious response that the problem facing America's college students deserves."
Associated Press writers Jim Abrams and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.