A big fight is looming in the Senate over SAFRA, the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act.

SAFRA is the most ambitious attempt to reform higher education lending in ages. The bill would put the federal government in charge of providing federal student loans — students would borrow money under the same terms as before, but the money that used to go to banking institutions’ overhead and profit would go to education instead.

The passage of SAFRA would provide billions of dollars in new funding to education programs: $4.7 billion this year alone. Starting next year, it would provide a big boost of cash to Pell Grants, reducing the cost of higher education for needy students. And it would simplify the student loan application process too.

SAFRA passed the House of Representatives last September, but it was put on hold in the Senate because of fears of a Republican filibuster. Here’s where things stand now:

Ordinarily, Senate minorities have the power to keep legislation from coming to a vote by filibustering — extending debate indefinitely. It takes 60 votes to end a filibuster. But an exception to the filibuster rule allows the Senate to pass a budget bill every year through a process called “reconciliation,” and that bill only requires a 50-vote majority.

Bills that have a budgetary impact can be added to the budget bill for passage via reconciliation, ao Senate Democrats are now looking to pass SAFRA that way.

But only one reconciliation vote happens each year.

And they’re also looking to pass health care reform through the same process.

It’s likely to get messy.

So that’s the situation. SAFRA is a popular bill, in the Senate and in the country at large, but its future is far from certain. What happens depends on a lot of complicated maneuvering in Congress, and that maneuvering is already well underway. I’ll be following this story as it develops, but for now here are some resources you can use to get more info and find out how to take action:

  • The news site Inside Higher Ed published a big, thorough SAFRA story yesterday, with a clear explanation of the bill’s prospects and a bunch of links to more information.
  • The House Education and Labor Committee has a SAFRA page here.