The general election campaign for president is springing to life, now that Mitt Romney is all but certain to be President Obama’s Republican opponent next fall. On Capitol Hill, though, the battle over who will sign or veto Congress’ bills next year is already blazing.
In two key votes this past week, many Republicans fell in step with candidate Romney and his quest for more support from younger voters and women.
Lawmakers have known for a long time that the 3.4 percent interest rate for federally subsidized college loans will double on July 1 unless Congress acts. Still, for months, Republican lawmakers ignored Democrats’ calls for action. In fact, the budget recently passed by House Republicans and endorsed by Romney assumes student loan rates will double.
But then on Monday, just as Obama began talking up the issue on college campuses in three states, Romney declared he did not want those rates to go up.
“I fully support the effort to extend the low interest rate on student loans,” he said.
And on Wednesday, at a hastily called news conference, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he too wanted to avoid a student loan rate hike.
“Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the aisle here on the Capitol have long agreed this was a problem that must be addressed,” he said.
A reporter asked Boehner if he was doing Romney’s bidding.
“I’m doing my own,” he responded.
But another leading House Republican, Rep. David Dreier of California, said GOP lawmakers are closing ranks around presumptive nominee Romney.
“It’s going to be no secret that as we head into the conventions and the campaign itself and into the fall, we’re going to be … singing from the same page,” said Dreier, chairman of the Rules Committee.
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney gave Obama credit for the Republicans’ about-face on student loans.
“We know what their position was; we are glad they changed it; and they changed it in large part because the president took his argument out to the country, and they felt that pressure,” Carney said.
On Tuesday, the president appeared alongside talk show host Jimmy Fallon to “slow jam” about a student loan fix.
“What we’ve said is simple,” Obama said over a sultry beat provided by The Roots. “Now is not the time to make school more expensive for our young people.”
House Republicans passed legislation Friday extending the subsidized student loans another year. Unlike the Senate Democrats’ bill, which pays for the fix by closing a tax loophole, the House bill is paid for by abolishing the new health care law’s Prevention and Public Health Fund.
That prompted a veto threat from the White House and scorn from House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
“They say, ‘OK, we won’t allow it to double, but we’re going to take the money from women’s health,’ ” Pelosi said. “Should be no surprise to anyone, because they have an ongoing assault on women’s health and this is in their budget, and this is just a continuation of that.”
Boehner responded angrily. “Now we’re going to have a fight over women’s health. Give me a break!” he said. “This, the latest plank in the so-called war on women — entirely created, entirely created, by my colleagues across the aisle for political gain.”
Meanwhile, 15 Senate Republicans joined forces with Democrats this week to reauthorize the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. They did so after Romney said he supported the measure.
That drew ridicule from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.: “The Etch A Sketch is coming sooner than I thought.”
Claremont McKenna College congressional expert Jack Pitney said this year’s election has clearly required some fast repositioning on Capitol Hill.
“No doubt Republicans are feeling pressure not only from Romney’s position, but from constituent communications,” he said. “These are measures that enjoy a lot of support in the general public, and Republicans are responding to that looking ahead to the fall election.”
And hoping they’ll widen their party’s base of support.