Congressional Democrats ratcheted up pressure on President Joe Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt, demanding he use executive authority to relieve economic hardships for millions of borrowers who are holding roughly $1.7 trillion in student loan debt.
“The bottom line is this is one of those things the president can do on his own,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said at a press conference Thursday outside the U.S. Capitol, flanked by other congressional Democrats from both chambers. “Other presidents have done it – not in the magnitude we’re asking – but the fact that they have been able to do it shows that there is legal authority.”
“We have met with the president,” he continued. “We are pushing the president and his people and we are very hopeful that the cry from one end of America to the other – ‘take this student loan debt off our backs’ – will be heard in the White House.”
Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Massachusetts Democrat, didn’t mince words, saying that Biden should “be bold and responsive to the movement that elected him.”
“We are here to demand responsive legislation to the needs of the movement who delivered this victory, to finally center our most vulnerable and marginalized communities to demand a recovery that finally invests in people,” she said, framing the cancellation of student loan debt as a racial and economic justice issue.
“The momentum is building, the coalition is growing. This is the moment of reckoning, and the president must heed our calls.”
Despite the growing calls for wide scale student loan debt cancelation, Biden has not embraced the idea, and the demands come as he’s exhausting political capital attempting to push through a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package. Instead, Biden has proposed canceling up to $10,000 – though that proposal is not included in his stimulus package and he’s said he’d prefer to see it taken up as a legislative matter by Congress.
On his first day in office, he used his executive authority to continue to pause student loan payments and interest accrual as the pandemic rages. The Democrats who gathered Thursday to urge him to go further reminded him that he can use the same authority to cancel their borrowers’ debt, too.
“We understand this president knows he has the ability to use executive authority to cancel student loan debt,” said Rep. Mondaire Jones, a freshman Democrat from New York. “He has used that same authority to pause student loan payments and the accrual of interest. Now he must go further.”
During Miguel Cardona’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Wednesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who joined Schumer and House Democrats on Thursday to call on Biden to act, pressed Cardona on whether congressional Democrats can count on his support if he is confirmed as education secretary.
“Congress gave the Department of Education tools to help borrowers with student loan debt,” she said. “Will you commit to doing everything you can to use those tools to provide borrowers with immediate relief?”
“Yes,” Cardona said.
“One route that I will continue to take is administrative cancellation of student loan debt,” Warren then told Cardona. “If you are confirmed, that tool will be waiting on your desk when you are sworn in and that is tremendous power to help.”
Calls for wholesale cancelation were rebuffed by Republicans on the committee.
“I’m not eager to see the Biden administration pursue a dangerous and foolhardy proposal to simply forgive student debt,” Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican and ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, told Cardona on Wednesday. “Instead, I invite you to work with Republicans and Democrats in the Senate to pass legislation that dramatically simplifies student loan repayment options, allows borrowers to pay what they can reasonably afford capped at 10% of their discretionary income and have their loans forgiven after 20 years.”
Burr’s counteroffer has been included in various proposals to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which Congress is more than a decade overdue in updating, and has garnered the backing of Democrats – though it doesn’t address their additional desire to cancel student loan debt.
“I’m sure we’d be happy to work with the administration and you to pass that into law in the next 100 days,” Burr offered.
Republicans’ opposition to student loan debt cancelation is not unexpected. Since the policy began gaining traction in 2016, they’ve argued that it amounts to government gift-giving. Even some moderate Democrats have voiced similar concerns, in addition to wondering whether such a proposal would also let wealthy borrowers with good-paying jobs off the hook.
Before former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos resigned in the wake of the riots at the U.S. Capitol, she implored her colleagues to prevent Democrats from pursuing broad cancelation of student loan debt, calling it “truly insidious” and “crazy.”
After she resigned, one of her top political appointees released a legal memo that concluded that the Education Department lacks power to provide “mass cancelation” of federal student loan debt – though Schumer’s and Warren’s legislative staffs have said it doesn’t provide any significant legal obstacle to their plan.
The estimated cost of Biden using executive authority to cancel up to $50,000 of federal student loan debt for borrowers is $650 billion.
Schumer said that he and Warren had a 45-minute discussion with Biden and his advisers two weeks ago about the proposal.
“I told the president when we started on this that we were going to try to rally American people on this to back him up when he hopefully decides to do this,” Schumer said. “He had no problem with that.”
When asked whether there was potentially a more palatable path through Congress that wouldn’t force Biden’s hand on the issue, Schumer was quick to shut it down.
“The easiest way is for President Biden to do this with a flick of a pen,” he said.
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