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The Day After: G.O.P. Win in Massachusetts May Complicate Student Loan Fight

Published:  January 20, 2010

The path to getting President Obama’s proposal to overhaul the federal student loan programs through Congress may have just gotten a whole lot more complicated.

As has been widely reported, Republican Scott Brown’s stunning victory in yesterday’s special election in Massachusetts for the Senate seat long held by the late Edward Kennedy puts an end to the Democrats’ short-lived filibuster-proof majority. This is certainly not a deal killer for the student loan reform legislation as Democratic Congressional leaders plan to push it through using a “fast-track” procedure known as budget reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority to pass.

However, Brown’s long-shot win makes it much more likely that the legislation to end the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program will become even more entangled with the Democrats’ efforts to pass a health care overhaul bill. If this happens, there could be significant additional delays before the student loan measure is brought up for consideration in the Senate -- delays that could potentially jeopardize this vital legislation.

That bill has already been held up in the chamber for months awaiting a resolution on the health care reform effort. That’s because Democratic leaders wanted to hold out the possibility of using the budget reconciliation process to move the health care bill just in case they couldn’t get the votes they needed to defeat a potential filibuster from Senate Republicans.

But this possibility appeared to be pretty remote, especially after the Senate Democrats rallied together to pass their version of the health care legislation on Christmas Eve. At long last, it seemed that the student loan measure would step out of the shadows and take center stage.

The Democrats’ embarrassing loss in Massachusetts, however, changes the calculus. Assuming that Congressional leaders do not abandon their efforts to overhaul health care, they are likely to rely, in one way or another, on the budget reconciliation process to achieve their goals.

Under one scenario that is being considered, the House of Representatives would simply approve the Senate version of the health care legislation and send it to President Obama for his signature. In return, the White House and Democratic leaders would promise to make desired changes to the bill on a separate reconciliation measure. This approach does not appear to have much support among House Democrats, and news reports on Wednesday indicated that party leaders were backing away from it.

Another possibility would be for Congressional leaders to dramatically scale back their efforts and try to get as much reform as possible done on a reconciliation bill. This would not be an easy task, however, because many of the reforms that they have proposed would likely be ruled out of order under this type of parliamentary maneuver.

Regardless, if Democratic leaders choose either option, or any other that involves the budget reconciliation process, the President’s student loan overhaul plan will be affected. This may just mean a further delay, as negotiations over health care drag on even longer. But as Jason Delisle pointed out here yesterday, these delays do not come without consequences. Worse yet, the pairing of these two extremely controversial measures could derail them both.

It is increasingly looking like the Senate Democratic leaders’ decision to delay the student loan bill until health care reform was locked up has backfired. We sincerely hope that we are proven wrong.

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