Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 06/18/2012

Student loans, highway bill, waiting for the Supreme Court and can Eric Holder strike a deal? (and what else is happening this week in Congress)

The number of borrowers defaulting on federal student loans has jumped sharply, a big reason why Congress hopes to act to keep federally subsidized loan rates low. (Butch Dill - AP)
Congress returns to Washington this week for what promises to be one of the most active two-week stretches of the year as lawmakers face a host of substantive issues, including the fate of federally subsidized student loan rates, federal highway transportation funding, and whether to punish Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. for failing to cooperate with a congressional investigation.

As The Post’s Rosalind S. Helderman previews in Monday's Post, the most pressing issue is the loan rates, which will jump from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1, raising the cost of college for millions of students. That same day, without congressional intervention, a short-term transportation funding measure will also expire, forcing millions of construction workers off the job.

Leaders still cannot agree on how to pay for the nearly $6 billion price tag on student loans. The GOP-controlled House wants to pay for the extension by making cuts to the 2010 health-care reform law. But that proposal is a non-starter in the Senate, where Democrats want to pay for the extension by closing a payroll tax loophole for some wealthier small business executives. On the highway bill, negotiations have stalled amid disagreement over whether any bill would require the White House to approve construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

But two other issues this week could cause cause further divisions between the parties.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. (J. Scott Applewhite - AP)
First is whether the Justice Department and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee can reach an agreement by Wednesday to avoid a contempt of congress vote against Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. The GOP-controlled panel is set to vote Wednesday to hold the nation’s top lawyer in contempt for failing to produce documents related to the “Fast and Furious” gunwalking scandal.

In a sign of easing tensions, the committee last week dropped demands for some information regarding the roles of senior department officials in the scandal.

The issue has been a priority for Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) who insists he is seriously concerned about the DOJ’s lack of cooperation in the investigation, but also has relished the media attention afforded to him for keeping such a strong focus on the issue. No word yet on when or if the full House would vote on the contempt charge if the committee ultimately votes on the issue.

The second issue is whether the U.S. Supreme Court this week issues its ruling on the constitutionality of the health-care reform law. Both parties are preparing for a ruling, but lawmakers still won’t specifically say what, if anything, they might do if the high court overturns the law.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a doctor and leading GOP voice on the law, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that the court “should rule that this is unconstitutional and if not, the Republicans want to repeal everything that is left standing.”

“You are not going to see coming from the Republicans a 2,700-page bill,” Barrasso told CNN. “You’ll see step by step common sense solutions, but you’re not going to see a law so voluminous that it cannot be read or so incoherent that it cannot be understood, and you will see Republicans coming out and let people buy across state lines.”

Speaking for Democrats on CNN, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) also didn’t provide specifics of what his party might do if the law is struck down.

“If the Supreme Court were to knock down the individual mandate, that whole piece is in jeopardy just like some of these other pieces,” he said Sunday. “Now we don’t know exactly what the scope of the Supreme Court decision will be or of course what it will be, but the reality is those very important protections are at risk if the Supreme Court knocks it down.”

Floor action

The Senate this week is expected to spend most of its floor time continuing to debate the new five-year farm bill. Negotations over which amendments Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) would permit slowed deliberations last week, but both sides expect debate to continue. In the House, lawmakers will begin the week voting on a series of bills that would redistribute federal lands or rewrite various natural resources and water management laws.

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