This was ostensibly a vote on a motion to table (kill) a "motion to commit" (i.e. an amendment) by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) that would have reduced interest rates on student loans by 1.5%. (If passed, a motion to commit sends the legislation back to committee with instructions to amend the legislation as specified.) The measure Alexander sought to amend was a “companion bill” making a number of changes to health care reform legislation already signed into law by President Obama. The underlying context was that Republicans were trying to attach amendments to the companion bill in order to send it back the House, where it had passed by a narrow margin. CNN reported that Republicans had chosen to offer a slew of amendments in order to “undermine the measure,” while the Associated Press characterized the amendments as “a final drive to thwart President Barack Obama's health care remake.”In offering the amendment, Alexander sought to draw attention to a decision by Democratic leaders to include an overhaul of the student loan system in the companion health bill. Specifically, the companion bill phased out a program in which the federal government guaranteed loans made to students by private lenders. Under the legislation, students would instead receive loans directly from the federal government.
The amendment was also intended to force Democrats to vote against a popular proposal. Since the House had already passed the companion bill, any amendments adopted by the Senate would have sent the measure back to the House for a final vote. Since Democratic leaders wanted to avoid forcing the House to vote on the companion bill a second time, they instructed their party's senators to vote against all amendments. Republicans attempted to offer amendments that were politically difficult to oppose -- such as reducing interest rates on student loans.
Alexander urged the Senate to agree to his amendment: "This motion is aimed at reducing the interest rate on 19 million student loans from 6.8 percent to 5.3 percent. For the average student loan debt of about $25,000, it would save that student $1,700 or $1,800 over their ten-year loan." Alexander also contended: "…The Democratic majority has said: While we are at it, let's take over the federal student loan program….Sometimes I think the motto of the Obama administration is: If you can find it in the Yellow Pages, the government ought to be doing it."
Sen. Tom Harkin made a motion to table (kill) the amendment, and argued the Democratic majority was simply attempting to cut subsidies for large banks that profit from student loans: "…I am all for lowering interest rates. I would just note that my friend from Tennessee didn't take to the floor to complain when Sallie Mae was charging over 20 percent interest on its loans to students. I didn't see that. This amendment is not about lowering interest rates. What it is about is continuing a $61 billion subsidy to the big banks in this country."
After the House and Senate both passed their respective health care reform bills, the two chambers had intended to reconcile those two bills into a final package. After the House and Senate passed that final package, it would have been sent to President Obama, who would have signed it into law. Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA), however, won a special election to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) before the final health care bill could be brought up for a vote. Brown's victory gave Republicans 41 votes in the Senate, leaving Democrats with 59 members – one vote short of the 60 votes they needed to defeat a unanimous Republican filibuster against the final health care bill.
In order to pass comprehensive health care legislation without a 60-vote majority in the Senate, Democratic leaders devised a plan in which the House would pass the Senate health care bill (H.R. 3590), thereby enabling the president to sign it into law. The House would then pass a separate companion bill (H.R. 4872) to make changes to the Senate health measure under a process known as "budget reconciliation." Bills considered under budget reconciliation cannot be filibustered under Senate rules. This process allowed the House to make changes to Senate-passed health care legislation without sending the entire health bill back to the Senate, where it could have been filibustered indefinitely. The companion bill incorporated changes to the Senate health care legislation desired by House Democrats. The House passed the companion measure, and sent it to the Senate, where Democratic leaders hoped to defeat all amendments -- thereby avoiding a second vote in the House on a substantively changed bill; a vote that Democrats might have lost given the already tight margin when it was voted on the previous week.
The Senate tabled (killed) the motion to commit by a vote of 58-41. 58 Democrats voted "yea." All 40 Republicans present and 1 Democrat voted "nay." As a result, the Senate did not include a provision in the companion health care bill to reduce interest rates on student loans by 1.5%, and which Democratic leaders feared could have torpedoed the entire companion health care measure.