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WASHINGTON — Sen. Marco Rubio, a potential 2016 Republican presidential contender, is moving onto the turf of Democrats including President Barack Obama and Sen. Elizabeth Warren by offering a proposal to ease the burden of student-loan debt.
The Florida lawmaker Wednesday introduced a bill with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., to establish a universal system of federal student loan repayment based on the borrower's income.
Obama has taken a similar approach, as recently as last month when he ordered expansion of a program limiting repayments to no more than 10 percent of income.
Still, the issue may give Rubio, 43, a toehold with college-age voters and recent graduates, a segment of the electorate that overwhelmingly backed Obama in 2008 and 2012. Escalating student-loan debt, now at $1.2 trillion, is of growing importance to younger voters and a subject that's also gotten attention from Democrat Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor whom some Republicans have encouraged to consider a presidential run.
"Should Rubio decide to run for president, it would serve him well," said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. "It's important to lay down these markers before the presidential cycle. And the fact of the matter is that Republicans need young people to get into the White House."
Rubio in April proposed letting private investors pay students' tuition in exchange for a guaranteed percentage of their future income.
Between 2004 and 2012, total student-loan debt in the U.S. almost tripled from $364 billion in 2004 to $966 billion, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Rubio plans to introduce more legislation and release a series of white papers before the end of the year on other domestic issues, including job creation and retirement. He's already been making speeches on foreign policy.
Rubio's latest loan proposal seeks to curb default by preventing debt from becoming unmanageable.
To that end, he would combine several federal student loan options into a single loan repaid through a simplified income- based repayment. Interest rates would be based on federal Treasury rates. Rep. Tom Petri, a Wisconsin Republican, has introduced a similar measure in the House.
Payments would be based on a percentage of an individual's annual income in excess of $10,000. Borrowers could prepay any time without penalty.
Loans of less than $57,500 would be forgiven after 20 years, while loans in excess of that amount would be forgiven after 30 years.
The measure would apply to all new loans, and existing borrowers would be eligible to convert their loans into the new system.
"Our current loan repayment system often turns what should be reasonable debts into crippling payments," Rubio and Warner said in a statement to Bloomberg News. "Some graduates find they are forced to work multiple jobs, often in fields they didn't train for, simply to avoid defaulting on student loans."
Under their legislation, borrowers "would continue to be responsible for repaying what they owe, but at a more affordable pace and with more manageable payments," they said. "No one should be forced to go broke because they choose to go to college."
Warner said an income-based repayment plan "that allows people to take chances earlier in life, follow their passion — whether it's non-profit or entrepreneurial — I think makes sense," adding that he graduated from law school with about $15,000 in debt and may not have been as willing to engage in business ventures had he graduated owing significantly more.
Graduates of the class of 2012 who took out loans for bachelors' degrees owed an average of $29,400, and the share of college seniors with debt was 71 percent, according to the Institute for College Access & Success, an Oakland, California- based nonprofit group.
Obama said in June that he paid off his undergraduate debt in "about a year." Law school was a different story, he said, adding that when people earn a law degree they know they "would probably be able to pay it off."
"But compare that experience just half a generation, a generation ago to what kids are going through now," Obama said. "You've got a lot of middle-class families who can't build up enough savings, don't qualify for support, feel like nobody is looking out for them."
Rubio's perspective on student loans also is shaped by his experience, he says. When he was elected to the Senate in 2010, he was still paying off his law degree. He owed between $100,000 and $250,000 in student loans through Sallie Mae, according to his 2011 financial disclosure form, after earning a law degree from the University of Miami in 1996.
Rubio announced in December 2012 that he finished paying off his student loan debt through proceeds from his autobiography.
As a possible Republican presidential contender, Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, could be well-positioned to compete for voters that have historically been loyal to Democrats.
"One problem with Republicans is that younger voters tend to see their candidates as old, out-of-touch white guys," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. "A young, Latino candidate breaks that stereotype."
The student loan effort "allows him to say that he's for something, and not just against things," Pitney said, adding that Rubio "appears to be establishing himself as the candidate who appeals to mainstream Republicans who want their candidate to have a positive agenda."
Introducing the bill with Warner also adds to Rubio's record of reaching across to Democrats. He notably was part of the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" that crafted a comprehensive rewrite of the nation's immigration laws, which the Senate passed last year.
"One of the things I've noticed in my time here is that members, when possible, look for opportunities to work across the aisle because they know it increases the chances they could get something done," Rubio said in an interview at the Capitol.
Obama in 2012 won support from 60 percent of voters younger than 30, compared with 37 percent for his rival, Republican Mitt Romney. Obama has told audiences about how financially strapped he was in his forties before he and his wife finished paying their student debt.
Romney, meanwhile, was criticized for being insensitive to lower- and middle-income Americans when he advised students that to pay for their education or start their own business they should borrow money from their parents.
Rubio has been cultivating an image as someone who understands the struggles of those with student debt. "We must make the burden of student loans more manageable," Rubio said in a February speech at Miami-Dade College where he outlined the broad strokes of the plan he's unveiling.
Obama, working with lawmakers and taking administrative steps, has expanded Pell grants for low-income students, created a tuition tax credit for middle-income families and expanded a program for former students to make payments based on their income. His administration is requiring companies that service federal student loans to better explain payment options.
Obama's executive order last month, by including student loans made before October 2007, expanded by about 5 million the number of borrowers eligible to limit their loan payments to 10 percent of income under existing law. The new rules would take effect in December 2015.
Republicans last month blocked Warren's legislation to help about 25 million student-loan holders obtain lower interest-rate refinancing. Rubio was among those voting against the measure proposed by the Massachusetts Democrat.
While her message has won her plaudits from many Democrats, Warren has indicated she won't be a presidential contender in 2016.
In remarks last month at a White House event promoting college affordability, Obama said congressional Republicans have adopted a "you're on your own" approach to student debt.
"Two years ago, Republicans in Congress nearly let student loan interest rates double for 7 million young people," Obama said. "Last year, they tried to strip protections from lower- income students. This year, House Republicans voted overwhelmingly to slash Pell grants and make it harder for thousands of families to afford college. If you're a big oil company, they'll go to bat for you. If you're a student, good luck."
_ With assistance from Janet Lorin in New York.