Senate Republicans initiated a legislative challenge to the Biden administration’s student loan cancellation program on Monday – the latest in a series of objections that stand to upend what otherwise would be the signature education achievement of the president in his early tenure.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, Louisiana Republican and ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, introduced a resolution backed by 37 of his GOP colleagues that would eliminate the cancellation plan and also end the pause currently in place on federal student loan payments and accumulating interest.
The legislative attack comes after the Government Accountability Office concluded earlier this month that the student loan cancelation plan is subject to what’s known as the Congressional Review Act. And the support of Cassidy’s caucus, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, gives him more than the 30 votes needed to force a vote on the resolution.
“President Biden is not forgiving debt, he is shifting the burden of student loans off of the borrowers who willingly took on their debt and placing it onto those who chose to not go to college or already fulfilled their commitment to pay off their loans,” Cassidy said in a statement on Monday. “It is extremely unfair to punish these Americans, forcing them to pay the bill for these irresponsible and unfair student loan schemes.”
All votes under the Congressional Review Act are simple majority votes, but that may prove difficult for Senate Republicans to garner – even if some moderate Democrats privately grumbled about the president’s plan when he announced it in August.
In the Republican-controlled House, where prospects of passage are much greater, Rep. Bob Good, Virginia Republican, introduced the companion resolution with the support of Rep. Virginia Foxx, North Carolina Republican and chairperson of the Committee on Education and the Workforce.
“President Biden’s so-called student loan forgiveness programs do not make the debt go away, but merely transfer the costs from student loan borrowers onto taxpayers to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars,” Good said in a statement. “Congress should stop these unilateral actions, and I am proud to lead the fight in the House to hold President Biden accountable for his reckless, unfair, and unlawful student loan proposal.”
The White House punched back Monday afternoon, with press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre saying Republican efforts to block the debt cancellation program would be “denying millions of their own middle-class constituents from getting the student debt relief they need and deserve.”
She underscored that millions of borrowers from conservative states, including 380,000 in Cassidy’s home state of Louisiana and 2.1 million in Texas alone, had already applied for the debt relief they are seeking to block.
Biden’s plan would cancel $10,000 in student loan debt for borrowers making $125,000, or $250,000 for married couples, and $20,000 for those who also received federal Pell Grants. The proposal is estimated to cost up to $400 billion.
The resolution of disapproval is the latest Republican attempt to prevent the debt cancellation plan from coming to fruition. Supreme Court justices are deliberating its fate after hearing oral arguments in February in two cases that challenge the executive authority used to establish the sweeping program.
Conservative justices, who constitute the majority of the court, raised major questions about Biden’s legal authority to waive hundreds of billions of dollars in student loan debt on the basis of the 9/11-era Heroes Act and skirt Congress in order to enact significant policy changes that check boxes on its agenda.
Meanwhile, the court’s three liberal judges refuted the narrative that the program was an overreach of executive authority and said that Congress created the Heroes Act explicitly to allow the education secretary to cancel debts in a national emergency such as the pandemic. They also voiced concerns over the number of borrowers who are projected to default or enter into forbearance if the loan cancellation plan is nixed.
The White House estimates that as many as 40 million borrowers would qualify for the relief, with nearly 90% of the benefits going to out-of-school borrowers earning less than $75,000 per year.
Before the program was frozen, 26 million borrowers either applied for the debt cancellation plan or had already provided sufficient information to the Education Department to be deemed eligible in the four-week span that the application was available. More than 16 million of the applications were fully approved by the department and sent to loan servicers before a handful of lawsuits filed by opponents of the program prevented the debt from being discharged and forced the department to stop accepting applications.
Making the program a reality has been a slog for Biden.
Despite promising during the 2020 presidential campaign to cancel some portion of student loan debt for borrowers, Biden wasn’t convinced that he had the executive authority to go it alone. And after waffling over the decision for 19 months, the debt relief plan has proven more of a headache for the administration than anything.
In addition to agitating moderate Democrats who have never supported the idea of student loan debt cancellation, progressives bemoaned the amount proposed for cancellation, characterizing it as far from sufficient to provide the type of racial justice Biden promised to bring to the White House.
Meanwhile, the $400 billion price tag is an easy target for Republicans, who have been quick to label it a bailout as the country enters an uncertain economic landscape.
As he stares down a contentious 2024 campaign, it’s unclear at this point which would be more politically advantageous for Biden – that the debt relief plan dies and he can claim that he tried without committing to massive spending, or that it comes to fruition and it energizes a progressive base he’ll depend on during the looming campaign.