President Barack Obama on Friday urged Congress to prevent student loan rates from doubling in a month, prompting a fight with House Republicans who accused him of playing politics instead of sitting down to work out small differences and avoid an increase.
Interest rates on new subsidized Stafford loans are set to go from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1. Lawmakers from both parties say they want to avoid the increase but are divided over how to do so.
Obama said if Congress doesn't act to stop loan rates from rising, students would rack up an additional $1,000 annually in debt. "That's like a $1,000 tax hike," the president said.
Obama made his case flanked by college students wearing business suits and dresses on a steamy Washington morning in the Rose Garden. The event marked the beginning of a public campaign by the president to extend temporarily current student loan rates or find a long-term compromise to avoid the rate increase.
The event also gave the president a chance to try to move past political controversies that have been dogging his agenda, including investigations into last year's deadly attack in Libya, political targeting at the IRS and secret monitoring of journalists who reported stories based on national security leaks. Obama opened his Rose Garden appearance by touting economic improvements during his presidency.
Obama said rising college debt -- more than $26,000 on average for a four-year degree -- saddles young adults with debt just as they are starting out and prevents them from buying cars and houses, hurting the economy overall. "That doesn't just hold back our young graduates. It holds back our entire middle class," Obama said.
The White House has proposed linking federal student loan rates to the financial markets. The Republican-controlled House passed a plan last week that would reset student loan rates every year according to financial markets, but Obama has threatened to veto the bill in part because it doesn't lock in current low rates. "The House bill isn't smart and it's not fair," Obama said.
House Speaker John Boehner responded by accusing Obama of practicing "petty partisanship."
"The differences between the House plan and the president's are small, and there's no reason they cannot be overcome quickly," Boehner said in a statement. "But today, rather than working to resolve the issue, the president resorted to a campaign stunt to try to score political points. If the president is truly unhappy with inaction, the only place to look is the Democratic-run Senate, which has taken no action to prevent rates from doubling."
The Senate is scheduled to vote on the issue next week, said Majority Leader Harry Reid. The Senate version would freeze current rates for two years while Congress works on a long-term fix, something the White House says Obama supports.
Obama spoke personally about the power of an advanced degree, saying he and his wife are only in the White House because of their education. "We didn't come from privilege," the president said. He recalled they ended up paying off their student loans only in the past decade, and the payments were higher than their mortgage. "We were lucky. We had more resources than many," he said.
"Higher education cannot be a luxury for a privileged few," Obama said. "It is an economic necessity that every family should be able to afford, every young person with dreams and ambition should be able to access."