How Obama’s College Plan Could Get Through Congress

August 22, 2013 12:00 p.m.

Last month’s student loan interest rate fix was messy and a long time in coming, but — for better or worse — the Obama administration sees that as the model for how to pass the president’s plan for college affordability.

The centerpiece of the president’s plan, announced Thursday, is a new rating system for colleges. The ratings would combine access, affordability, and educational outcomes in assessing a school’s performance. The administration can implement the new ratings system on its own. But the White House also hopes to eventually tie the ratings to federal student loans — giving more generous loans to students who go to more highly rated colleges — and that would require approval from Congress.

The student loan fix — which cleared the House, 392-31, and the Senate, 81-18, with substantial GOP support — came up repeatedly when administration officials were asked Thursday about how they planned to garner support for the plan from Republicans who have consistently thwarted administration initiatives.As U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters Thursday: “I think it’s probably the most bipartisan piece of legislation that’s passed in a long time, quite frankly. So this is something that I’m actually very hopeful that we can continue to work together with Congress to do that.”

Asked in a conference call by TPM about their strategy for advancing the proposals in Congress, administration officials also referred to the student loan deal.

“What’s important about the student loan process is that it produced a result,” said Cecilia Munoz, director of Obama’s domestic policy council. “We have relationships with that group of senators and congress members, and we are very hopeful that all of them will be part of this conversation.”

The White House saw some glimmers of hope in how some of the Republican members of that coalition responded to the president’s announcement. Rep. John Kline, chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, referenced their recent bipartisan success in lowering student loan interest rates.

“The federal government, states, and institutions have a shared responsibility to help rein in college costs,” Kline said in a statement. “Earlier this month, I was pleased to join my House and Senate colleagues as the president signed into law bipartisan legislation that lowers loan interest rates for millions of students.”

But both cited their concerns about potential problems with a ranking system, which Kline worried “could even lead to federal price controls,” in their statements, indicating some of the obstacles that the White House might face in pushing its plan.

The administration has already experienced one road bump: After the White House suggested that Sen. Marco Rubio could be a potential supporter of the proposals, Rubio stated Thursday his unequivocal opposition to them.

Obama is taking a two-day bus tour to push his proposals, and they are expected to be a focal point for the administration when Congress reconvenes in September.

Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which expires at the end of the calendar year, was cited by Kline and White House officials as a logical legislative venue for Obama’s college affordability proposals.

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