WASHINGTON — House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday that President Barack Obama was acting "beneath the dignity of the White House" when he traveled around the country this week to pressure Republicans to help keep federal student loan costs from ballooning. Boehner said Obama should reimburse taxpayers for the trips' costs.
The Ohio Republican spoke a day after Obama wrapped up visits to three college campuses in North Carolina, Colorado and Iowa. At each stop, he gave campaign-like speeches lambasting the GOP and talking up election-year efforts by Democrats to keep subsidized Stafford loan interest rates from doubling in July, an increase that would affect 7.4 million students.
"For the president to make a campaign issue and then to travel to three battleground states and go to three large college campuses on taxpayers' money to try to make this some political issue is pathetic," Boehner told reporters. "And his campaign ought to be reimbursing the Treasury for the cost of this trip."
White House spokesman Jay Carney defended the travel as an effort to press an important policy issue. He said that by taking a high-profile stand in favor of extending the student loan rate, Obama succeeded in winning Republican support.
"It is eminently obvious that the president was out talking about a policy issue," Carney said. "This is official business. And he did it effectively."
Boehner said Obama was charging the Treasury for a trip in which he targeted Republicans for ignoring a problem that GOP lawmakers were already working on.
"Frankly, I think this is beneath the dignity of the White House," he said. He also accused Obama of trying to concoct "fake fights" and added, "The emperor has no clothes."
The Boeing 747 that is usually used as Air Force One costs $179,750 an hour to operate, the Pentagon says.
Carney countered that Republicans acted in "Johnny-come-lately" fashion and were not inclined to back a continuation of the low rates until Obama made it a public issue.
"The American people understand, in a way that I guess that the speaker doesn't, that education is an essential element of the American economy," he said.
On a day in which both sides used the student loan fight to bolster their standing with voters and cast the other side negatively, the leader of House Democrats accused Republicans of writing a $5.9 billion bill that would raid women's programs to keep the student loan interest rates from growing.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters she will oppose the GOP-written bill on Friday, when it is scheduled for a House vote. The measure would prevent the 3.4 percent interest rate on subsidized Stafford student loans from doubling as scheduled on July 1.
Pelosi said Republicans have decided, "'Let's take it out of our old favorite target, women's health,' and that's just wrong."
The House GOP bill would cut a $17 billion prevention and public health fund for immunization campaigns, research, screenings and wellness education.
That fund was created by Obama's health care overhaul law. Boehner and other Republicans have dubbed it a "slush fund" and sought to cut it to finance a variety of projects, succeeding earlier this year in helping to pay for maintaining doctors' Medicare reimbursements.
"It may be a slush fund for him, but it's survival to women," Pelosi said of Boehner's remarks. She added, "That just goes to show you what a luxury he thinks it is to have good health for women."
Democrats in recent weeks have accused Republicans of waging a war on women because of their stances on insurance coverage for contraception and other social issues.
Leaders of both parties have said they want to prevent the cost of federal student loans from rising, but they are fighting over how to pay for it.
Boehner announced there would be a vote in an abruptly called news conference Wednesday that followed days of pounding by Obama and congressional Democrats. It also came two days after the GOP's presumptive presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, tried defusing the issue by embracing the call for freezing interest rates, putting more pressure on congressional Republicans to back the effort or look isolated.
The backdrop to the student loan fight is a push by both parties to appeal to younger voters, an Obama strength in his 2008 election win, and to signal their sensitivity to families' struggles during the economy's prolonged slump.
At the same time, each side wants to force the other to take politically uncomfortable votes. The Senate Democratic version would force high-earning owners of some privately owned corporations to pay more Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes, violating Republicans' anti-tax doctrine.
"I hope my Republican colleagues will stop insisting on protecting tax dodgers," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Senate Republicans have said they support keeping loan interest rates down for another year but oppose the Democrats' way of paying for it.
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.