Biden under increasing pressure to reverse decision on student loans
Washington DC - President Joe Biden is facing increasing pressure from Democrats to extend a pandemic-related pause to student loan repayment, pitting the White House between its restless liberal base and a growing effort from the administration to signal that life is returning to "normal" after nearly two years of emergency measures.
Biden has twice given an extension, but last week, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki announced that there wouldn't be a third time. Unless Biden is persuaded otherwise, federal student loan repayments will resume after the president’s current order expires on January 31.
Nationally, 45.7 million borrowers have $1.6 trillion of student loan debt, and 41 million of them have taken advantage of the pandemic pause on repayments, according to an Education Department spokesperson.
Progressives are leading the call for another extension as borrowers prepare to resume monthly payments early next year amid rising inflation and the threat of the new Omicron variant. Average monthly payments are about $400 dollars, according to the Federal Reserve.
"We now have people who’ve never had to pay because they graduated into a pandemic in 2020," said Melissa Byrne, a liberal activist. "You have people that are still struggling."
Byrne on Wednesday led a protest outside the White House calling for both the extension of the payment freeze and an outright cancellation of at least some student debt, arranging for a small marching band and choir to perform.
"I have faith in the White House not to do something stupid," she said.
Biden urged to use executive powers
Unlike other measures before the president that require congressional approval, extending the student loan payment freeze is the sole purview of the executive branch.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier this month that a "smooth transition back into repayment is a high priority for the administration," setting off a backlash from activists who want Biden to pause repayments and cancel student debt.
Psaki this week said Biden would happily sign a bill to fulfill a campaign promise to cancel $10,000 in student debt if Congress passes one. "They haven’t sent him a bill on that yet," she said.
But Democratic lawmakers point out that, in the meantime, Biden does not need legislation to extend the pause on repayments, which he did in August following a standoff with his party’s progressive faction over the end to a national eviction moratorium. Progressives want Biden to issue another extension before the end of January.
"He can do it with the stroke of a pen and that’s what we’re asking for," said Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri, one of the most left-leaning lawmakers in Congress.
Republicans want return to "normalcy"
It’s not just progressives who say Biden should act.
Sen. Bob Casey, a mainstream Democrat from Pennsylvania and close ally of the president, also said the pause should be extended as the country still grapples with the pandemic.
"I certainly hope we can give it some more time," said Casey, a three-term senator who shares Biden’s Scranton roots. "We’re still in a pandemic for all intents and purposes," he added.
Republicans say while they are sympathetic to the plight of borrowers, the pause on repayments cannot continue indefinitely.
"The question really becomes at what point do you stop this or is this a permanent development?" said Florida Senator Marco Rubio. "I mean, someone has to explain what the end date is."
Rubio said the pause was enacted during the initial shocks to the economy, but he argued that now there are more jobs than workers and an extension would be misguided. He said it would be better to pass legislation to reform the student loan system as a long-term solution and that his bill would eliminate interest on federal student loans by replacing it with a flat financing fee.
"I had $100,000 of student loans, so I sympathize with it," Rubio said. But, he added, "at some point these have to be paid back."
Extending an emergency measure like freezing student loan payments could alarm the public, Republicans say, which sees the country as emerging from an emergency situation. The share of Americans who report being "very concerned" about the virus had dropped from 45% in September to 30% this month, according to a Monmouth University poll released Wednesday.
Rep. Jake LaTurner, a Republican from Kansas., whose district includes the University of Kansas, said that another extension would be counterproductive. "It’s time for us to get back to some sense of normalcy," LaTurner said.
Cover photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire