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Backing Down on Veto Threat, Bush to Sign Landmark Bill Increasing Student Aid; What Will He Do on Child Health?

StorySeptember 27, 2007
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In an important victory for college students, President Bush will sign the largest increase in student aid since the GI Bill — an increase he initially threatened to veto. Meanwhile, Bush may soon have to decide on whether to follow on another veto threat. The House has passed a $35 billion expansion to the State Child Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP), and the Senate is expected to follow suit. We speak with Roger Hickey of Campaign for America’s Future. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In an important victory for college students across the country, President Bush will sign the College Cost Reduction and Access Act into law today. The bill is the largest increase in student aid since the GI Bill. It received overwhelming bipartisan support in both the House and the Congress, despite marked opposition from private lenders and banks, as well as veto threats from the White House.

The legislation cuts $20 billion in subsidies to student loan providers and redirects them to students. This should be a welcome piece of news at a time when student loan debt is increasing faster than starting salaries for graduating seniors. A new study by the Project on Student Debt finds that the average student loan debt increased by 8 percent just in 2006, compared to a 4 percent increase in starting salaries for graduating seniors over the same one-year period.

The Campaign for America’s Future, along with a number of other groups, spearheaded a broad campaign to rally support for this legislation. Roger Hickey is the co-director of Campaign for America’s Future. He joins us now from Washington, D.C. Welcome to Democracy Now!

ROGER HICKEY: Thank you. Good to be with you and your audience.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Tell us about the student loan changes now and why the administration, which initially threatened to veto it, has now decided — President Bush has decided to sign the bill.

ROGER HICKEY: Well, as everyone knows, the financing of college tuition has switched over, over the last several decades, from predominantly grants in aid and scholarships to kids going into debt, their parents going into debt, under student loans. And the student loan system is a system of subsidies to private banks to basically guarantee that the loans will be paid.

Suddenly, students got wise to the fact that we were subsidizing these banks way more than we needed to, and it allowed the banks to charge very high interest rates. So this bill, thanks to the pressure from American students, from their parents, and from the leadership of Nancy Pelosi, really, will cut the interest rate in half on student loans and will do other things to increase Pell grants, etc. But cutting the student loan rate, interest rate, is the biggest part of this package. And unusually, the president is showing good sense in capitulating to the majority this time and actually signing the bill, as opposed to his normal routine of threatening a veto.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Meanwhile, the battle over renewing and expanding the popular State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or S-CHIP, continues. The 10-year-old program expires this week. Despite broad bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate, it’s headed for a presidential veto. Could you talk about this?

ROGER HICKEY: Well, again, the support in the House and the Senate, as you say, has been very, very strong, from Republicans and from Democrats. The expansion of S-CHIP is something that makes sense to average people, allowing more and more children, in this case, in the case of the current bill, about four million more children to be covered under the S-CHIP plan. And yet the president is not showing any kind of common sense. He is threatening a veto on the ideological grounds that covering more children may whet people’s appetite for national health insurance for everybody and on the theory that we simply can’t afford the modest increase in the costs of this bill. This, at a time when we are spending millions an hour in Iraq. So the president here is going against the will of the American people. David Broder, in today’s Washington Post, says that the Republican Party is following Bush off a cliff. And it appears that President Bush wants to be known as the guy who’s the enemy of insuring young children.

AMY GOODMAN: Not all Republicans are going with him, like Heather Wilson in New Mexico, among others, right? They are breaking, at this point. I mean, what are we talking about? The latest request for war — what is it? — $15 billion now that the secretary of defense made? What does this cost in a year, healthcare for children?

ROGER HICKEY: This would cost an additional $7 billion per year, $35 billion over the next five years. And for that, you would cover over four million additional children, 10 million children altogether. So the comparison with the war in Iraq is just obscene.

AMY GOODMAN: It was actually $42 billion that Secretary Gates asked for.

ROGER HICKEY: Right. That’s right.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And my understanding is the Urban Institute put out a report that over 700,000 children, additional children, were not covered by health insurance just last year alone?

ROGER HICKEY: Well, that’s right. The trends in health insurance coverage are very bad. More and more Americans, 47 million Americans, are not covered. And about eight million children and growing are not covered. And that means, of course, more illness and bad starts for children who are going to school. But it also means an additional cost to the entire society when those kids and their parents end up in emergency rooms without preventive care. So it’s just a pound-foolish approach to what is a crisis in the American healthcare system. We’re going to be talking about healthcare for all next year and in the campaign for the presidency. But this is simply a common sense way to cover the most vulnerable kids in our society.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, Roger Hickey. Thanks for joining us, co-director of Campaign for America’s Future.

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