With controversy over student loans and the DREAM Act stirring Florida's U.S. Senate campaign and the presidential race, Sen. Bill Nelson held a forum with students at the University of South Florida to highlight the issues Thursday.
"I'm going to tell your stories on the floor of the Senate," he said after the students talked about borrowing $200,000 or more for college and medical or law school.
Nelson, a Democrat facing re-election in November, said he will vote next week in the Senate for a proposal backed by the Obama administration that extends cut in the interest rates on federal student loans.
He also signaled willingness to consider a compromise proposal on the DREAM Act by his Florida Republican colleague Marco Rubio.
"If that's the only thing we can pass, I'm certainly open to it," he said, "but that's not going to solve the problem." He said Rubio's proposal would let college students "just sit out there in legal limbo."
Federal student loan interest rates will double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent in July when a rate cut expires, unless Congress acts.
Nelson said the House voted to extend the cut, covering the cost by taking money out of the Affordable Care Act provisions for preventive health care, including cancer and diabetes screenings and childhood immunizations.
He said the Senate version would cover the cost by applying Medicare taxes to those who have profits from "S corporations" — mostly private, owner-operated businesses — of $250,000 or more. Unlike wage or salary employees, they don't pay Medicare taxes on that income.
Nelson's leading GOP opponents, Rep. Connie Mack IV and George LeMieux, favor the House version but have still squabbled over it in their primary race.
Mack voted for it so that rates won't double, "and that we also don't add to our debt and deficit in the process," said spokesman David James.
But LeMieux mocked Mack shortly before the House vote, when Mack repeatedly declined to state his opinion in an interview and appeared unfamiliar with the issue.
"When the vote comes up, we'll cast that vote … we'll absolutely be able to cast a vote," he said when MSNBC interviewer Chuck Todd pressed him on how he would vote.
LeMieux favors the House version because it takes the money out of what Republicans call "the Obamacare slush fund," said spokeswoman Anna Nix.
But Mack has accused him of flip-flopping because when asked about "subsidized student loans" at a recent tea party forum in Orlando, he appeared to oppose them.
"I'm going to look at every dollar we spend with this construct: Is it worth borrowing the money from China to spend this dollar?" he responded. "And the answer is, in most cases, the answer is no."
The DREAM Act would allow earned citizenship for children of illegal families who were brought here as children if they go to college or serve in the military. Democrats, including Nelson and most Hispanics, favor it, but immigration hard-liners oppose it.
Rubio will propose a compromise allowing the students temporary legal status and the possibility of applying for permanent status without returning to their parents' home countries, but he hasn't settled the details.
At the meeting, USF senior biology major Alison Giron of Miami, who hopes to go to medical school, told Nelson she didn't find out until she applied to college that her parents had brought her to the country illegally from Honduras.
"I didn't know I was not an American until I was denied Bright Futures," the Florida student aid program, she said.
She was able to go to college when her grandmother obtained citizenship and claimed her as a dependent, she said.