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August 4, 2015

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Who’s to blame for student loan debate? For politicians, everyone else

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Leila Navidi

President Barack Obama departs from McCarran Airport in Las Vegas after delivering an energy policy speech at a solar plant in Boulder City on Wednesday, March 21, 2012.

When President Barack Obama takes center stage at UNLV today, he’ll be stumping on student loans and repeating a complaint that’s become a central refrain in his public appearances: Congress’ inefficiency is causing the country problems.

Freezing the interest rate on student loans is one of the five points Obama outlined on a “to do list” he delivered to Congress last month. With little progress made, the president is now reviving his cry of “We Can’t Wait” for Congress by announcing an executive order on student loans that White House officials say would help avoid defaults by better explaining income-based loan repayment options to borrowers.

Policy-wise, Obama’s order won’t solve the problem of soon-to-be-skyrocketing interest rates on student loans or break the stalemate on Capitol Hill that has stymied efforts to keep them low. Even the secretary of education admitted he couldn’t predict how many defaults the changes are expected to help avoid and stressed that Congress really does need to constrain interest rates through legislation.

Politically, however, Obama may get some mileage from once again taking aim at Congress. If there’s one thing Americans are united on in today’s atmosphere of bitter partisan divides, it’s their loathing of the legislative branch.

But Obama’s re-election strategy of attacking Congress puts down-ticket lawmakers — such as Rep. Shelley Berkley, who is in a tight race for Senate — in an awkward position of defending their record without undermining the president’s message.

Talking policy is always a tortuous task in an election year — especially when lawmakers’ ability to actually execute policy is at an all-time low in the deadlocked Congress.

Earlier this year, Congress hit an approval rating of just 10 percent — with both Republicans and Democrats expressing their frustration equally.

But ask each side who is to blame for the unsatisfactory review and the answers are as starkly divided as the inter-party line.

Take the student loans debate. In the past month, Senate Democrats lost a vote on their bill to offset the $6 billion cost of keeping student loan interest rates at 3.4 percent by closing a tax loophole on hedge funds. Senate Republicans lost a vote on their bill to offset it by stripping money from a health care prevention fund.

Now Republicans are petitioning the president with a proposal to pay for student loans with tweaked pieces of his fiscal 2013 budget plan.

With only three weeks to go until rates double on July 1, Democrats are blaming Republicans for the congressional breakdown.

“When in doubt, wave your arms and scream and shout, and that’s what they’re doing,” Nevada Sen. Harry Reid said of the student loan process thus far. “If they want to negotiate in good faith, we’ll do that ... but this is all just a game that’s being played.”

Republicans are blaming Democrats.

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Sen. Dean Heller, Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Shelley Berkley applaud during a Memorial Day ceremony at the Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City Monday, May 30, 2011.

“Instead of compromising, the Democrats want to raise taxes on small business at a time when we need jobs,” Nevada Sen. Dean Heller said of the Democrats’ plan last month, calling their insistence on their bill “further proof that Washington is broken.”

And the White House?

Obama has signaled where his loyalties lie: He threatened to veto the GOP’s student loan bill and didn’t challenge the Democrats. But the White House’s official line is to steer clear of the details — even when the president is being directly petitioned by Republican leaders to get involved — and keep cracking the “We-Can’t-Wait” whip.

“Our view is that Democrats and Republicans on the Hill should sit down and figure out a solution to this, and we’re eager to see that happen before July 1,” White House Domestic Policy Director Cecilia Munoz said Wednesday when asked where the president stands on current student loan proffers circulating around the Hill.

She then deflected the question by giving a hat-tip to her boss.

“The whole reason we’re having this conversation is that the president has made it a priority,” she said.

But while some Democrats in Congress might want to see Obama focus his attacks on Republicans, they’re not exactly frustrated by the president effectively questioning their job performance when he pillories Congress — because they’re doing the same thing.

“He should be saying Republicans are the problem because Republicans are the problem,” Berkley, who is running for the Senate against Heller, said when asked about the president’s focus on Congress’ shortcomings.

But Berkley added that she sympathizes with Obama’s aggravation.

“I’m sitting here, and I have frustration,” Berkley said.

Perhaps the biggest irony in Nevada politics this season is that most of the candidates running on the “Washington is broken” mantra are Washington incumbents. Only in the 3rd Congressional District does an incumbent have a serious challenger who has never served in Congress.

It means, strange as it may sound to hear Washington insiders flog the concept of Washington insiders, that the anti-Congress conversation is safe ground in Nevada — whether you’re a would-be senator or representative or the president.

“Given the gridlock in Congress, it doesn’t hurt for an incumbent to be running against Washington,” said one Nevada Democratic strategist. “That’s something you’re going to see from frankly anybody who is paying attention to the way that voters feel in this current political climate.”

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