President Joe Biden’s rejection of calls to eliminate up to $50,000 of student loan debt has prompted sharp responses from his allies on Capitol Hill, with leading liberals vowing to push ahead with the plan and the top Senate Democrat calling for them to “keep fighting.”
In a joint statement on Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren said, “Cancelling $50,000 in federal student loan debt will help close the racial wealth gap, benefit the 40% of borrowers who do not have a college degree, and help stimulate the economy. It’s time to act. We will keep fighting.”
Addressing a Wednesday night town hall, Warren told people to reach out to Biden directly on the issue.
“If we could persuade the President, we can do this real fast,” the Massachusetts Democrat said.
The comments are a rebuke to Biden and a way to put pressure on the administration after the President made clear during Tuesday night’s CNN town hall that he disagrees with other members of his party who want to cancel $50,000 of student debt per borrower.
“I will not make that happen,” Biden said after a member of the audience said his proposal to cancel $10,000 per borrower doesn’t go far enough.
“We need student loan forgiveness beyond the potential $10,000 your administration has proposed. We need at least a $50,000 minimum. What will you do to make that happen?” the audience member asked.
The dispute among Democrats highlights an early intra-party rift opening under the new administration over a liberal policy proposal. With Democrats controlling Congress and the White House, Schumer and Biden are both facing pressure to balance the demands they face from liberal and moderate members of their party.
Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York openly criticized the President on Wednesday over his comments.
“1. Who cares what school someone went to? Entire generations of working class kids were encouraged to go into more debt under the guise of elitism. This is wrong,” she said on Twitter, adding, “2. Nowhere does it say we must trade-off early childhood education for student loan forgiveness. We can have both.”
Ocasio-Cortez said in a second tweet, “The case against student loan forgiveness is looking shakier by the day. We’ve got the *Senate Majority Leader* on board to forgive $50k. Biden’s holding back, but many of the arguments against it just don’t hold water on close inspection. We can and should do it. Keep pushing!”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that once Biden’s Justice Department nominees are confirmed, he will ask them to conduct a legal review of his authority to act by executive action on targeted debt relief.
“What the President has told Senators (Chuck Schumer of New York) and (Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts) is that once his team is in place at the Justice Department – and they are not, of course they’re, they’re not confirmed at this point – he will ask them to conduct a legal review of his authority to act by executive action in conjunction with a policy review from his Domestic Policy Council on how executive action debt relief, if any, should be targeted,” Psaki said at a White House briefing.
“Obviously that’s a review that would need to take place. There’s a legal consideration there, as I think everybody agrees, there’s a policy consideration. And once that’s concluded, he’ll decide the path forward.”
“In the meantime, if Congress moves forward and sends them a package that, you know, provides $10,000 of student debt relief, he’d be eager to sign that,” Psaki said.
Biden argues that the government shouldn’t forgive debt for people who went to “Harvard and Yale and Penn” – and he’s also indicated that he believes Congress should make changes through legislation, which would make them harder to undo.
“The President has and continues to support canceling $10,000 of federal student loan debt per person as a response to the Covid crisis,” Psaki said at a briefing this month.
She added that that the President is “calling on Congress to draft the proposal,” and “looks forward to signing it.” But a later tweet from the press secretary suggested that the administration was open to reviewing an executive option.
In one of his first acts in office, Biden extended the pause on student loan payments and interest, a Covid relief benefit put in place by Congress last year that had already been renewed by the Trump administration. Federal student loan borrowers won’t have to make payments until October 1 at the earliest.
He also supports making community college free for everyone, making public four-year colleges free for students from families who earn less than $125,000 a year and changing the existing system to make sure student loan payments are more affordable.
At CNN’s town hall, Biden said, “Here’s what I think: I think everyone and I’ve been proposing this for four years, everyone should be able to go to community college for free,” adding, “The tax policies we have now, we should be able to pay for it.”
This story has been updated with additional details.
CNN’s Kate Sullivan, Katie Lobosco and Daniella Diaz contributed to this report.