Attaching a student aid bill to the healthcare reform legislation could attract support for the whole measure, according to senior House Democrats.
The House already passed the bill which would essentially cut private lenders out of federal student lending programs, and it is a major priorities for Democrats in the lower chamber, President Barack Obama and liberal advocates.
Democratic leaders are in the process of cobbling together the 216 votes needed to advance the healthcare reform bill and will gladly take all the help they can get.
When the student lending bill passed the House last September, it received 247 Democratic votes - or 27 more than the healthcare reform bill that passed in December. Thirty-two Democrats who backed the education bill opposed the healthcare legislation.
"It makes it easier for people to vote for this bill," said House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.), whose panel wrote the education bill and portions of the healthcare bill.
Under the proposed plan, both measures, in accordance with the congressional budget resolution, would move via budget reconciliation rules that would allow Senate passage with a simply majority. The House must first adopt a comprehensive healthcare reform bill the Senate passed in December and both chambers must take up a smaller package of changes to that bill under reconciliation.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) downplayed the appeal of the student lending measure as a lure for healthcare fence-sitters. "I don't think it will make a difference in the House in passing the [healthcare] bill," she said.
But Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.), a senior member of Miller's committee and a central figure in the healthcare reform process, said lawmakers have approached him saying adding the student lending legislation to the healthcare bill would make them more likely to vote yes. "I heard that from a few people inside," Andrews told reporters after a House Democratic Caucus meeting Friday morning.
The notion of using the healthcare bill as a vehicle for the student lending measure has percolated among Democrats on Capitol Hill for months but in recent days has seemed increasingly likely - though Democrats stressed that the plan is not yet a go.
"I don't think any final decisions have been made," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. "Obviously one way of getting important reforms through the legislative process would be in this vehicle."
Nevertheless, the idea is gaining traction, especially after a discussion among Senate Democrats at a Thursday meeting. That evening, Miller and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) worked on reshaping the House-passed bill with administration officials, Miller told reporters.
Moreover, Pelosi maintained that the Senate parliamentarian, who plays a decisive role in what can and cannot be considered under reconciliation in the upper chamber, told Democratic leaders they had to include the education provisions. Not only does the current budget resolution give Congress the right to do student lending legislation under reconciliation but the total package must demonstrate deficit-reduction beyond the more than $100 billion in the original Senate-passed healthcare bill.
On Thursday, the Senate parliamentarian "said it must be part of reconciliation. And so that's why it has emerged again," Pelosi told reporters.
A handful of Democratic senators, however, oppose the switch to direct federal lending to students and others a resistant to moving the education bill through reconciliation, especially since the Senate has not considered its own version of the bill, even in committee.
Because of reconciliation rules, however, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) can afford to lose up to nine members of his conference and still have the healthcare and education bill pass, with Vice President Joe Biden casting the tie-breaking 51st vote.
Some of the centrist senators with misgivings about the student lending bill already are not guaranteed supporters of the healthcare bill, such as Democratic Sens. Evan Bayh (Ind.), Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Jim Webb (Va.).
The financial institutions that currently participate in federal student loan programs say the House bill would eliminate almost 35,000 jobs, though Democrats argue the projection is too high. The GOP generally is opposed, though six House Republicans voted for the bill last year as did Rep. Parker Griffith (Ga.), who switched to the GOP after the education and healthcare votes.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blasted the student lending bill and the idea of attaching to the healthcare measure.
"It's a very bad idea. We now have the government running banks, insurance companies, car companies, and they do want to take over the student loan business," McConnell said. "I'm not sure the public thinks the current debate is about that issue, and would show again the lengths they are willing to go to have the government expand its tentacles into absolutely everything."
Andrews dismissed such criticisms: "The real argument is: At a time when higher education is more crucial for the American people do we want to make it more affordable? I would welcome that argument."
Jared Allen contributed to this article