Saturday August 10, 2013 | 12:38 PM

Barack Obama, Charlotte Etier; Brian Schatz, Angus King, Richard Durbin, Joe Courtney, John Kline

WASHINGTON – The student loan interest rate bill signed into law Friday by President Obama represented both Sen. Angus King’s highest-profile policy victory to date and the Maine independent's biggest split with Democrats.

“I fully expected to be reined in at some point, to get a call from some of the Democratic leadership saying, ‘What are you doing?’” King said Friday prior to the White House ceremony. “And that didn’t happen. That just did not happen.”

(Check out this weekend’s Maine Sunday Telegram for more on how often King’s stance aligned with top Democrats and Republicans during the first seven months of his Senate career.)

An independent who caucuses with the Democrats, King and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., were the point people at least intially in trying to convince a bunch of highly skeptical Democrats that their bipartisan student loan rate reform proposal was a good one. The new system allows the financial market – not Congress – to determine interest rates, and that was a huge concern for Democrats concerned that rates would rise too high.

Rates will drop for all borrowers this fall under the new law, with undergrad borrowers paying 3.9 percent, grad students paying 5.4 percent and parents 6.4 percent. Those rates will be locked in for the life of the loan, but future rates on new loans will vary, depending on the 10-year Treasury note.

In the end, 16 Senate Democrats, one Republican and the other independent who caucuses with the Democrats still voted against the bill. But as those critics pointed out during debate, the bill did not address the larger issue of how the rising costs of higher education are forcing college students to go deeper into debt.

Obama noted that during the signing ceremony on Friday, saying “our job is not done.”

“So I'm going to be looking forward to engaging this same coalition to see if we can continue to take additional steps to reform our higher education system,” the president said.

King’s role in the small group that brokered the deal has earned him praise from some of his colleagues.

“During the student loan debate, Angus showed the value of having in the Senate a governor who is a practical problem solver,” Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, one of the key Republican negotiators in the group, said Friday in a statement. “Working across party lines, he helped put in place policy that makes it cheaper and simpler for all students getting loans and ends the annual political game-playing in Washington about what the interest rates will be.”

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Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
Kevin can be reached at 317-6256 or kmiller@mainetoday.com

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