Senate leaders agree on plan to preserve student loan rates
The $6.7 billion agreement would extend the current 3.4 percent rate on Stafford loans for one year; the bulk of the funding would come from two pension measures. Attention will now shift to House Republicans, who already passed a loan extension, paid for in a manner that Democrats declared unacceptable.
WASHINGTON — The Senate Democratic and Republican leaders on Tuesday reached an agreement on legislation to extend subsidized federal student loans, adding bipartisan pressure to House Republicans to come along before rates double on July 1.
The $6.7 billion agreement would extend the current 3.4 percent rate on Stafford loans for one year, with about $700 million extra for deficit reduction, according to Senate leadership aides. The bulk of that — $5.5 billion — would come from two pension measures. One would change how private pension interest payments are calculated, smoothing the fluctuations for businesses even as the total cost rises slightly. The other would come from higher premiums for companies participating in the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.
An additional $1.2 billion would come from limiting how long a student could receive Stafford loans to 150 percent of the average time it takes to complete a degree. Currently there are no limits.
Attention will now shift to House Republicans, who already passed a loan extension, paid for by a preventive-care fund from the health-care law that Democrats declared unacceptable.
House Republicans huddled with Speaker John Boehner of Ohio on Tuesday evening, trying to find a way to link the loan deal with a measure extending federal highway and transit programs. The goal, aides said, was to be able to take a final vote on Friday, ahead of the July 4 recess.
heads to Obama
WASHINGTON — A Food and Drug Administration bill designed to increase inspections of foreign drug factories, while also speeding approvals of new drugs at home, is headed to the president's desk after an overwhelming approval in the U.S. Senate.
The Senate approved the must-pass piece of the legislation by a vote of 92-4, and President Obama is expected to sign it within days.
The core of the bill is critical to the FDA: It bolsters the agency's budget with billions of dollars in drug-industry fees for scientists who review new medicines. For the first time, generic drugmakers will pay review fees to speed the approval of their products. Branded drugmakers have paid those fees for 20 years.
Lawmakers seized on the legislation to address recent concerns about the safety and quality of prescription medicines, especially those that are imported. The bill also gives the FDA new tools to fight counterfeiting and drug shortages, which have made headlines in the past year.
Public-health experts say the most significant changes for consumers involve how FDA inspectors oversee foreign drug-manufacturing facilities.
For more than 70 years, the agency has focused its inspections on U.S. factories. But most companies have moved their operations overseas to take advantage of cheaper labor and materials. Between 2001 and 2008, the number of U.S. drugs made outside of the country doubled, according FDA figures.
The bill passed by Congress would drop a requirement that FDA inspect all U.S. drug factories every two years and let it focus on foreign facilities, which it now typically inspects every nine years.
The risks of unchecked foreign drug manufacturing hit home in 2008, when hundreds of U.S. patients suffered allergic reactions — some fatal — to a blood thinner imported from China.
Despite months of negotiation, the bill does not include a national tracking system, which public-health advocates say is critical to weeding out counterfeit pharmaceuticals from the U.S. supply chain.
The portion of FDA's drug-review budget that's underwritten by industry has steadily increased since 1992 and is now more than 60 percent. Consumer advocates complain that the agency has become too dependent on the companies it regulates. They say they were shut out of the discussions.
The nonprofit Consumers Union lobbied Congress for a year over what it calls loopholes in FDA's approval process for medical devices. Of particular concern to the consumer group was that the FDA routinely clears some medical implants that are similar to older devices — even if the older products were recalled for safety reasons.