Education has kind of taken a back seat to some of the other facets of the Obama agenda, but on one measure they have sought to make tangible progress – the utterly common-sense notion of ending the subsidization of the private student lending market, and using the savings of providing student loans directly to increase Pell Grants and other awards to make college more affordable. This would redirect $87 billion dollars over 10 years from the pockets of bankers to students. It’s about as simple and clear a position as you can take.

So naturally, it faces resistance from Republicans and ConservaDems who have private student loan operations in their states. Back in April, the Senate, preparing for this resistance, authored budget reconciliation rules to move this education measure forward with 50 votes instead of having to break a filibuster with 60. And now, Tom Harkin is planning on doing just that.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is risking an intra-party battle by fast-tracking legislation that seeks to cut off federal subsidies to student loan companies.

Harkin said he will attempt to use special budget rules that only require a simple majority vote to advance a bill that would end the Federal Family Education Loan program, which would free up money for other education programs.

But centrist Democrats are blanching at Harkin’s move to use the reconciliation process for an education bill that includes major policy reforms, echoing concerns they raised over using those rules for healthcare legislation.

As reconciliation is supposed to be used purely for budget items, and this specifically saves money in one area of the budget and shifts it to other programs, there should be no parliamentary problems with using reconciliation to enact this reform.

What’s interesting here is that budget reconciliation has been consistently offered up as a solution to break the health care stalemate. Republicans and media outlets not bothered by falsehoods have called this an unprecedented (it’s not) and radical (again, no) step. But here, Democrats are perfectly content with using reconciliation to resolve the phase-out of subsidies to private student lenders.

Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) office noted that reconciliation has been used for education bills before, including in 1997 when Congress approved tax incentives for people to pursue higher education.

“[The] budget resolution we passed earlier this year explicitly included reconciliation instructions for education to give us the option of using this vehicle for this purpose and that option remains on the table,” said Joel Payne, a Reid spokesman.

Because you can only use one reconciliation bill per year, the education measure won’t come up for a vote until later in the year, to guard against the possibility of needing reconciliation for health care. Many of the same Senators wavering on the health care bill, particularly Ben Nelson (D-NE), are opposed to this education measure, and if the Senate uses reconciliation they would be outvoted on both counts.

David Dayen

David Dayen