Congressional Democrats are ramping up pressure on the White House to cancel student debt, but the White House still appears to be kicking the issue to Congress.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren reintroduced a resolution Thursday calling on the president to immediately cancel up to $50,000 in student debt for each borrower. When Schumer and Warren first announced the proposal in September, they directed it at Biden, who at the time was only a candidate.
Now, the lawmakers are applying pressure to a sitting president with the power to actually choose whether to take up their cause. At a press conference where the Senators were joined by Democratic representatives Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and other lawmakers who introduced a companion resolution in the house, Schumer said that he and Warren spoke with Biden and his advisers for 45 minutes on the issue.
“We have met with the president, 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,” Schumer said.
He later added that the White House has “been extremely open to listening to us.”
Calls for Biden to use his executive authority to cancel student debt have grown since his election in November. Amid the pandemic-induced downturn, cancelling student debt has emerged among progressives and some mainstream Democrats as an attractive option for stimulus because it may not require Congressional wrangling.
“Cancelling student loan debt is the single most effective executive action that President Biden can take to kick start this economy,” Warren said at the press conference.
Despite the pressure from lawmakers, it appears Biden still may be hesitant to use his authority to cancel student loans. During the White House press briefing Thursday, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, reiterated Biden’s support for Congress to cancel $10,000 in student debt per person as a response to the COVID crisis.
“He’s calling on Congress to draft the proposal,” Psaki said, noting that Biden would “look forward” to signing it if it came to his desk.
Still, Psaki acknowledged the President’s power to deal with the issue through his authority, noting that Biden directed the Department of Education to extend the payments and collections pause on federal student loans when he took office.
“He already took a step through an executive action on the first day and he would look to Congress to take the next steps,” she said.
Schumer, Warren and other supporters of cancelling student debt through executive action are relying on a reading of the Higher Education Act, backed by legal experts, which says Congress has granted the Secretary of Education the power to cancel student debt.
Other supporters of student debt cancellation disagree, saying that using executive authority raises legal questions that could draw lawsuits from student-loan servicers, lenders and other entities involved in the loan process.
The idea of student debt cancellation has its origins in Occupy Wall Street and though it’s gained traction over the past several years — particularly as the disproportionate impact of student debt on students of color have become apparent — it’s not without controversy.
Critics worry it would be a boon to borrowers who have six-figure debts from graduate school, but also relatively high incomes. But supporters, including the lawmakers at the press conference, argue that it would improve racial equity. Proponents of student debt cancellation have also said the student loan system essentially amounts to a policy failure, and cancelling student debt is part of correcting it.
“We think this is great economics, great politics and most of all great humanity,” Schumer said.