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WASHINGTON — Something rare happened in Congress on Wednesday: It approved and sent to President Obama a major piece of public policy by an overwhelming bipartisan margin.

The feat was even more notable because the bill, which created a new set of rates for federal student loans, is entwined with
issues that often divide Republicans and Democrats: the economy, the financial markets and the government’s role in lending. It passed by a vote of 392-31 in the House. The Senate approved the measure, which Obama backs, last week, 81-18.

Student-loan rates doubled to 6.8 percent July 1 because Congress could not come up with a plan to replace student-lending laws that had expired. The new legislation links student-loan interest rates to the financial markets, offering lower rates for most students now but higher ones down the line if the economy improves as expected.

Failing to act on a compromise before the end of this week would have left legislators heading home for a monthlong recess to face constituents already disillusioned over inaction in the Capitol.

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Passage of the student-loan bill came the same day House GOP leaders were forced to pull from the floor a $44.1 billion spending bill on transportation and housing because of a lack of votes. Republican moderates opposed steep cuts.

Under the old federal student-loan program, borrowers were offered a fixed rate. Under the new rate structure, loans to undergraduates and graduate students, along with parents in the PLUS program, would be subject to a fixed rate plus the yield on the 10-year Treasury note.

Rates for loans taken out after July 1 this year would be 3.9 percent for undergraduates and 5.4 percent for graduate students, and parents would borrow at 6.4 percent. The rates are fixed over the life of the loan but would change for new borrowers each year.

In a compromise that pleased many Democrats, Congress set a cap on all loans: 8.25 percent for undergraduates, 9.5 for graduate students and 10.5 for loans to parents.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, said that while she was “disappointed it took as long as it did for us to get to this place on student loans,” she hoped the legislation “is setting the stage for more bipartisanship and success on other issues.”

“This is a more stable formula, so students aren’t waiting for Congress to act every year,” said Kay Lewis, director of financial aid for the University of Washington. She said it’s also good news that there’s a cap on interest rates. On the down side, though, the lower rates are unlikely to last, and a few years down the road, students “may see much higher rates than what they have right now,” Lewis added.

According to the Washington Student Achievement Council, nearly 100,000 undergraduate students at public and private colleges in Washington took out student loans in 2010-11, the latest year for which statistics were available. The average annual loan was about $9,500.

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