David Espo

WASHINGTON: In the political campaigns still taking shape, President Barack Obama, Republican challenger Mitt Romney and lawmakers of both parties say they want to protect college students from a sharp increase in interest rates on federally subsidized loans.

Agree, they might, and act they surely will. But first, they settled effortlessly into a rollicking good political brawl.

In less than 72 hours, what might have looked like a relatively simple matter mushroomed into a politically charged veto showdown that touched on the economy and health care, tax cuts and policies affecting women. Accusatory campaign commercials will follow, no doubt.

“This is beneath us. This is beneath the dignity of this House and the dignity of the public trust that we enjoy,” protested House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester, as he and Democrats both maneuvered for position.

Over two days of campaign-style appearances on college campuses, Obama broached the topic of legislation in a move to gain students’ support in the fall election. He urged his listeners to tweet their lawmakers and urge them to block an increase in interest rates on federally subsidized loans issued beginning July 1.

Within a day, Romney told reporters he agreed on the need to prevent the rate increase, while conceding nothing to Obama in the search for political advantage. “I support extending the temporary relief on interest rates for students,” he said, and cited “extraordinarily poor conditions in the job market” in a jab at the president’s handling of the economy.

Congressional Democrats announced they would write legislation to prevent a doubling of the current 3.4 percent interest rate, and cover the $6 billion cost by requiring more wealthy individuals to pay Social Security and Medicare payroll tax.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., then accused Democrats of wanting to pay for the legislation “by raiding Social Security and Medicare, and by making it even harder for small businesses to hire.”

Democrats noted that the Republican-written budget included no provisions to block the increase in the interest rate.

The Democratic charge brought a rebuttal from Boehner, who said at midweek that the Republican-controlled House would vote quickly to prevent the interest rate from rising. “The issue is not a partisan issue,” he said.

The Republican bill would cover the $6 billion cost by slicing into a fund to cover preventive health-care costs. That expanded the struggle to include one of the Republicans’ own campaign planks — the promise to repeal what they deride as “Obamacare,” and failing that, to dismantle it piece by piece.

Charge gave way to counter-charge having little or nothing to do with student loans.

Democrats said the health care fund Republicans had targeted was evidence of a “war on women.”

“Give me a break,” Boehner protested on the House floor. Addressing Democrats, he said, “You may have already forgotten that several months ago, you voted to cut $4 billion out of this fund to pay for the payroll tax cut.”

By then, the White House weighed in with a veto threat, which House Republicans promptly ignored in passing its version of the measure on a near party-line vote of 215-195.

With that, Congress, its approval rating mired in the teens, went on a one-week vacation.