Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden plans hearings next week on legislation that tries to address the "smothering" burden of student debt by helping young people avoid incurring it in the first place.
A week after a Republican filibuster blocked a college-debt bill backed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Wyden hopes to build bipartisan support for proposals that would consolidate and simplify a dozen tax incentives designed to help make education affordable. He wants to require schools to provide information that would help young people make realistic assessments of the income they can expect -- and the loans they'll be able to repay -- after graduating from particular schools with particular skills.
"We understand a lot of these families are always walking on a tightrope balancing their food bill against their fuel bill and their fuel bill against their rent bill, so it's very hard," he told USA TODAY's Capital Download. "But let's try to take some common-sense steps to get families started." For example, he would revise regulations that make it harder for families of modest incomes to qualify for food assistance if they save money for education costs.
The Oregon Democrat, who became chairman of the powerful finance panel this year, sees a "15-month window" ahead to negotiate a major tax bill before 2016 presidential politics takes over. Warren's bill, which would have let people with older student loans refinance at current, lower interest rates, failed to get the 60 votes needed to move forward.
Wyden predicts Democrats will keep control of the Senate in November's midterm elections, but in any case, he says nothing is going to get done without working across party lines. "The reality is, neither side in January of 2015 is going to have enough votes to have it all their way," he says. "So you're going to have to build coalitions."
For a decade, Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has raised concerns about U.S. intelligence gathering and Americans' privacy rights -- a debate ignited last year by revelations from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Despite complaints by President Obama and others about damage done by Snowden's disclosures, Wyden says the debate has made Americans safer.
"It has not compromised American security," he says. "Bringing Americans into the debate, doing it in a transparent way, I think, yes, makes us stronger at home, stronger abroad."
He faults Keith Alexander, former director of the NSA, and James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, for giving answers about surveillance on Americans that Snowden's disclosures proved were false. "This is a debate that should not have been started by a contractor," he says. "This is a debate that should have started with the intelligence leadership being straight with the American people."
Kelly Jordan, usa today