The nation's $1.2 trillion of student loan debt, and the overall economic burden of college costs, has become a huge political issue – it was one of the first issues for which Hillary Clinton rolled out a detailed campaign proposal, and it's the focus of her trip to New Hampshire this week. And, perhaps not surprisingly given the concentration of colleges, college graduates, and liberal policy-makers, New England's US Senators have been some of the loudest advocates for change in Washington.

The region's Senators have introduced six of the 20 bills filed so far this year directly concerning student loans.

So far, none of them have gotten so much as a hearing. They include: from Rhode Island, Jack Reed's Protect Student Borrowers Act; from Connecticut, Christopher Murphy's College Affordability and Innovation Act; from Vermont, Bernie Sanders's College for All Act; from New Hampshire, Jeanne Shaheen's Simplifying Access To Student Loan Information Act; and from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren's Bank On Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act.

The latest, filed by Shaheen last week, tries a bipartisan approach; Utah Republican Orrin Hatch joined in sponsoring the Student Protection and Success Act.

That bill hones in on a specific problem: it attempts to cut off low-quality colleges that trap students into debt without giving them the education needed to earn enough to pay back those loans. 

Currently, it is rare for the Department of Education to disqualify such schools from the federal student loan program. According to Shaheen, only 21 were sanctioned in 2014 for high default rates -- 12 of which were beautician schools.

Warren, who has been a vocal leader on the issue, took another tack last week. Along with two other Senators – including Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut – she sent a letter urging the Inspector General to review issues with student loan servicers' compliance.

This stems from a $100 million settlement paid last year by Navient (formerly Sallie Mae), for charging interest rates on servicemembers above the legal cap. The Education Department's subsequent review of loan providers' compliance, released this May, dismissed the scope of the problem as minimal. 

Warren, skeptical of the gulf between those findings and the Department of Justice allegations that led to the settlement, has just issued its own report http://www.warren.senate.gov/files/documents/SCRA_ED_Report_August2015.pdf calling the Education Department review “deeply flawed.” She, Blumenthal, and Patty Murray of Washington, want the Inspector General to look into it. 

Meanwhile, Politico reports that http://www.politico.com/story/2015/06/clinton-student-loan-reform-plan-has-warren-stamp-118865.html Clinton is tapping into Warren's network as she tries to seize on the populist issue.

Clinton has sought advice on the issue from experts people at Demos, where Warren's daughter is chairwoman, as well as Rohit Chopra, who was hired by Warren at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Politico reports.

The results were rolled out on Monday: a $350 billion plan to help students pay for college without loans, to refinance existing loans, and to triple the size of the AmeriCorps program.

Clinton's Democratic opponents have even more aggressive proposals. Sanders, for example, advocates eliminating public college tuition entirely.

 

Iran deal support grows

In the final hours before the US Senate officially broke for August recess on Wednesday, Angus King of Maine took to the floor and announced his decision to support the Obama administration's deal with Iran on nuclear weapons inspections.

It was probably the moment when it became almost certain that the deal, negotiated by Secretary of State John Kerry, would survive Congressional attempts to block it.

As Greg Sargent blogged at Washington Post earlier that day, King was one of seven remaining Democrats considered “gettable by the opposition.” (King, an Independent, caucuses with Democrats.) Those hoping to stop the Iran deal needed all seven, plus six other undeclared Democrats to have the 67 needed to override an Obama veto.

With King supporting the deal, its detractors will have difficulty even getting the 60 votes necessary to enforce cloture and even take a vote on it. If Congress doesn't act to block the deal by mid-September, it goes into effect.

Lawmakers may be getting the message. At hearings of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees, testimony included potential ways of strengthening the deal through legislation, short of stopping its implementation.

On the House side, New England Democrats remain slow to indicate their decisions. Of the nine from Massachusetts, only Steve Lynch, Jim McGovern, and Seth Moulton have announced their intentions. All three are supporting the deal.

Social media picture of the week

Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, and Congressman David Cicilline, all attended the unveiling in Newport, Rhode Island of a new US Postal Service stamp honoring the US Coast Guard. The tall ship depicted on the stamp, the Eagle, docked in Newport for the weekend. Reed posted this photo on Twitter.