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Merkley gets teacher endorsement

AFT cites advocacy of student loan changes, opposition to stances of GOP rival.

The Oregon affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers endorsed the second-term bid of Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, based in part on his advocacy of changes in federal student loans.

The union, which represents 15,000 workers at all levels of education and in child care, also criticizes Republican rival Monica Wehby. It says she supports an austere federal budget plan, tied to industrialists Charles and David Koch, that would balance spending with revenues over a decade but also result in deep cuts in discretionary programs, such as federal aid to education and student loans.

"While Jeff has been supporting our members and fighting to ensure that all Americans have a fair shot at affording college, Monica Wehby is not on the side of educational professionals or Oregon's working people,” says David Rives, president of AFT-Oregon, in a statement released Friday.

That budget plan would be even more austere than a 2011 federal budget approved by the Republican-controlled House, but defeated by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Wehby says on her website she favors restraining federal discretionary spending, but isn't specific about education, other than criticism of the U.S. Department of Education as it relates to elementary and secondary schools. She offers no proposals for student aid.

She has assailed Merkley for supporting spending and opposing a constitutional requirement for a balanced federal budget.

Merkley voted for a 2009 expansion of $40 billion in Pell Grants, which go to college students based on financial need.

Merkley also voted for key bills in 2010 and 2013 allowing students to borrow directly from the federal government — ending federally subsidized loans from banks — and linking the interest rate on those loans to the yield on 10-year Treasury notes. Rates for loans taken out in 2013 were 3.86 percent; if Congress had not acted, rates could have been 6.8 percent.

Loan refinancing

Merkley also is a cosponsor with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren of a bill to allow refinancing of private and public federal loans taken out for college before 2010 at similar lower rates.

“Those loans should be at the minimum possible interest rate,” Merkley told reporters in a conference call Thursday. “They should never be viewed as a source of profit to the federal government.”

Debate on that bill was blocked June 11 on a 56-38 vote. It requires 60 votes for the Senate to advance a bill to debate.

Republicans objected, partly because the bill would raise taxes on millionaires according to the Buffett Rule, which proposes a minimum tax of 30 percent on high incomes. It was named after Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor from Omaha who proposed it.

Merkley defended it as “a very reasonable way” to offset the costs of the bill, but he’s open to other ideas.

“They should put their idea in the form of an amendment — and you can do that only if we get to debate the bill,” he says.

Merkley says college should be regarded as a way to a better life, as he did when he became the first in his family to go.

“But right now, our students are looking at those (college) doors, and sometimes they see less mobility and opportunity, and more unaffordable and inescapable debt,” Merkley said.

“I hear fears that students will have debts the size of a home mortgage that will be millstones around their necks, and the incomes they earn after college will not be enough for them to thrive after they pay their student loans — or may not be enough even to pay the loans.”

President Obama signed an executive order June 9 limiting monthly repayments on pre-2007 student loans to 10 percent of someone’s income. But it does not go as far as the Warren-Merkley bill would on pre-2010 loans.

Merkley said Thursday he hopes the Senate will agree to take another look.

Partisan fault lines

But the Senate has failed to advance a number of bills supported by Democrats and opposed by Republicans because of the lack of a 60-vote supermajority to move them to a debate.

In addition to the student loan bill, they are:

• Moving toward pay equity for women by giving them more legal tools to combat discrimination. It failed April 9 on a 53-44 vote.

• Raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 over 30 months. It failed April 30 on a 54-42 vote.

• Requiring insurance coverage of birth control and undoing a Supreme Court decision allowing some employers to opt out of coverage based on religious objections by their owners. It failed July 16 on a 56-43 vote.

• Ending tax deductions for businesses that move operations overseas. It failed July 30 on a 54-42 vote.

On all these issues, Merkley voted yes, and Wehby says she likely would have opposed them.

Some of these issues could return for debate because Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., switched his vote to allow him to be on the prevailing side.

Merkley was part of a group that managed to end Senates filibuster on presidential appointees, except for judicial nominations. But he thinks the public, which already gives Congress low performance marks, is weary of Senate debates about whether the Senate can proceed to debate a bill.

“I think the American people are going to get frustrated that these pillars of success for families are being blocked from ever being debated in the Senate,” he says.


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