Sanders unveils student debt plan amid rivalry with Warren

Sanders unveils student debt plan amid rivalry with Warren
© Greg Nash

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie SandersBernie SandersPressure grows for breakthrough in Biden agenda talks Sanders, Manchin escalate fight over .5T spending bill Sanders blames media for Americans not knowing details of Biden spending plan MORE on Monday unveiled an ambitious proposal to cancel student loan debt, seeking to reinforce his progressive credentials days before the first debates.

For Sanders, an Independent senator from Vermont, the student debt plan is an opportunity to reestablish himself as the Democratic primary field’s progressive leader on the issue of college affordability. 


The plan comes as Sanders finds himself facing an ascendant progressive rival in Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenMisguided recusal rules lock valuable leaders out of the Pentagon Biden's soft touch with Manchin, Sinema frustrates Democrats Hillicon Valley — Presented by LookingGlass — Congress makes technology policy moves MORE (D-Mass.), who has set herself apart by releasing a steady stream of sweeping policy proposals.

“It’s smart on his part. It’s an extension on the 2016 campaign when he called for free college tuition in public universities,” said Mark Longabaugh, a top adviser to Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign.

“So I think this is just taking it a step further. Both the Warren and the Bernie plans are not only good public policy — good progressive policy — but good politics.”

Sanders said his plan would cancel about $1.6 trillion in student debt for about 45 million people and that all of the debt would be canceled within a six-month period.

His proposal to cancel the debt is part of a package that is also designed to make public colleges tuition-free and ensure that students can attend college debt-free. He proposes paying for the package with a tax on trades of stocks, bonds and derivatives.

During a press conference on Monday outside of the U.S. Capitol building, Sanders contrasted his proposal to the bank bailout that Congress passed during the 2008 financial crisis.

“Ten years ago, because of their greed and illegal behavior, Wall Street banks were on the verge of collapse, and the United States Congress with taxpayer assistance came to their aid,” he said. “Well now we got millions and millions of families in this country who are struggling with outrageous levels of student debt. And maybe instead of just worrying about Wall Street, we start worrying about those families and that generation, and give them a break.”

“This is for those families, this is for those young people, this is for the economy, and this is for justice,” he added.

The proposal comes at a crucial time for Sanders’s campaign. The first Democratic presidential primary debates are this week, and recent polls show Warren gaining momentum in the primary contest. 

While Warren still trails Sanders and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenPressure grows for breakthrough in Biden agenda talks State school board leaves national association saying they called parents domestic terrorists Sunday shows preview: Supply chain crisis threaten holiday sales; uncertainty over whether US can sustain nationwide downward trend in COVID-19 cases MORE in most national surveys, she has significantly narrowed the gap, with some polls even showing her pulling ahead of Sanders.

Warren, who poses perhaps the most significant challenge to Sanders on the left, unveiled a plan earlier this year that would cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt for those earning less than $100,000 a year and eliminate tuition at public colleges.

Sanders’s campaign acknowledges that the senator is courting at least some of the same left-leaning voters as Warren, though advisers insist that such overlap is inevitable and that Sanders also shares appeal with some of the same constituencies being pursued by other candidates.

“I’ve seen a lot of overlap with Biden and Bernie support in rural Iowa,” Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaSunday shows preview: Supply chain crisis threaten holiday sales; uncertainty over whether US can sustain nationwide downward trend in COVID-19 cases Congress needs to step up on crypto, or Biden might crush it House Oversight Committee expects big oil executives to testify this month MORE (D-Calif.), a co-chair of Sanders’s presidential campaign, said in a recent interview. “If you go to rural Iowa and Bernie says, ‘I believe in rural America, I’ve represented rural America, I want to fight to preserve rural America,’ Biden has some of the similar appeal to some of those constituencies for the ability to connect.”

“It’s not as clear cut,” he added. “Yes, there is a shared progressive base, but Bernie’s support is that base plus a lot of rural communities.”

During Monday’s press conference, Sanders dismissed a question that referenced Warren’s student debt proposal, saying he was there to talk about his bill.

An aide to Sanders insisted that the senator’s student debt proposal was not motivated by Warren’s plan. Rather, his campaign sees the proposal as an opportunity to use concrete legislation to pressure other candidates to stake out their own positions on the issue, similar to his “Medicare for All” bill.

“Having that legislation out there already basically sets the debate marker in a very detailed and concrete way,” the aide said, adding that it forces candidates to answer the question of whether they would sign such a bill if elected president.

But others outside the campaign view Sanders’s proposal as a reaction to Warren’s plan.

“This is definitely an attempt to one-up her,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon, who is not affiliated with any presidential candidate.

Longabaugh, the former Sanders adviser, said that while Sanders’s plan tacks with positions that the senator has held for years, Warren’s decision to release her proposal months only bolsters her reputation as the primary contest’s thought leader.

“I think there’s the question of what took him so long,” Longabaugh said. “Warren’s been out of there with a big proposal eliminating this debt for several months. It just appears that Elizabeth Warren is driving the public policy debate in this campaign. And that’s an amazing thing to say that now even Bernie Sanders is following her.” 

Warren and Sanders aren’t the only two 2020 presidential candidates with proposals on student loan debt. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro has a proposal to expand loan forgiveness programs for lower-income students.

“It’s clear that proposals to solve college affordability have to go hand-in-hand with something to help current borrowers,” said Ben Miller, vice president for post-secondary education at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He said that there are a large number of loans that a rational college financing system wouldn’t have forced people to take out.


Many of the 2020 Democrats back some type of effort aimed at making college more affordable, such as supporting free community college or debt-free college. Several, including Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharOn The Money — Progressives play hard ball on Biden budget plan Schumer, McConnell headed for another collision over voting rights Hillicon Valley — Presented by LookingGlass — Congress makes technology policy moves MORE (D-Minn.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegSunday shows preview: Supply chain crisis threaten holiday sales; uncertainty over whether US can sustain nationwide downward trend in COVID-19 cases Buttigieg hits back after parental leave criticism: 'Really strange' The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by The Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations - US opens to vaccinated visitors as FDA panel discusses boosters MORE, have criticized the idea of free college but support other college-affordability ideas.

Sanders’s bill has the backing of a number of key progressive lawmakers and organizations.

Reps. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalDemocrats step up pressure on Biden on student loan forgiveness Progressives say go big and make life hard for GOP Warren, Jayapal demand answers on reported judicial ethics violations MORE (D-Wash.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarDemocrats step up pressure on Biden on student loan forgiveness Democrats fret as longshot candidates pull money, attention Bleak midterm outlook shadows bitter Democratic battle MORE (D-Minn.) and Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez goes indoor skydiving for her birthday Democrats fret as longshot candidates pull money, attention More than 200 women, transgender inmates to be transferred from Rikers Island MORE (D-N.Y.) joined Sanders in rolling out the legislation, and groups such as the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and Social Security Works have endorsed it.

“This is such an important issue because this is not just about our future generations and our current generations, but this is about our entire economy,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

But others have criticized Sanders’s debt cancelation proposal, noting that it applies to high-income people as well as low-income people and arguing that it provides a subsidy for actions that people have already taken.

“I’m not a big fan of debt forgiveness as a general principle, but this is a pretty horrific way to do it,” said Lanae Erickson, senior vice president for social policy and politics at the center-left think tank Third Way, which Sanders has criticized in recent days.

The Sanders campaign said that the candidate’s free college and student debt cancelation package would cost about $2.2 trillion and that their proposed funding source, a financial transaction tax, could raise $2.4 trillion over a decade. They cited a paper from University of Massachusetts-Amherst professors for their revenue estimate of the tax on Wall Street trade.

Marc Goldwein — senior vice president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which supports fiscal restraint — said that the estimate for the cost of Sanders’s proposal is plausible but that a financial transaction tax is unlikely to raise as much revenue as the campaign says it would.

“It’s very hard to imagine a financial transaction tax that would raise much more than $1 trillion,” he said.

Sanders also said that a financial transaction tax would help to lower the odds of another financial crisis, but financial industry groups argue that these types of taxes would hurt people who are saving for their retirements and other purposes.

“We believe a financial transactions tax would be a big mistake, by taxing families and households who hold and exchange financial assets, by reducing savings, and by increasing financial risk," said Kevin Fromer, president and CEO of the Financial Services Forum.

Sanders said Monday that the “overwhelming majority” of people who would benefit from his legislation are working class.

When asked about why he didn’t include income limits in the proposal, Sanders said he believes in “universality.”

“That means that if Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMcAuliffe takes tougher stance on Democrats in Washington Democrats troll Trump over Virginia governor's race Tom Glavine, Ric Flair, Doug Flutie to join Trump for Herschel Walker event MORE wants to send his grandchildren to a public school, he has the right to do that,” he said.