Democrats leery of Sanders plan to cancel student loan debt

Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill are balking at Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden leads, Warren and Sanders tied for second in new poll Analysis: Harris, Buttigieg and Trump lead among California donations The Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants MORE’s (I-Vt.) call to cancel $1.6 trillion in student debt, an idea that has garnered strong interest on the campaign trail but could give Republicans more ammo to turn 2020 into a referendum on “socialism.”

Sanders’s bold proposal mirrors his daring call during the 2016 campaign to make four-year public colleges and universities free at a cost of $70 billion a year.

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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPoll: Majority of Democratic voters happy with their choices among 2020 contenders No presidential candidate can unite the country GOP lawmakers speak out against 'send her back' chants MORE initially slammed the proposal in late 2015 by arguing that it would pay for the children of rich parents, like then-candidate Donald Trump’s kids, to go to school for free, but she eventually adopted the idea and offered her own plan for debt-free college.

Now Sanders is raising the ante by proposing that all student debt be canceled — and that is making Democrats in Washington nervous.

The idea is popular with the party’s left wing and is gaining traction in the presidential race.

But Democratic lawmakers are wary. On one hand, they know the idea of wiping out burdensome debts would be popular with millennial voters, who are shaping up as a crucial constituency in 2020, but piling onto the deficit to help a minority of working Americans — many from middle-class instead of working-class families — is seen as risky. 

“That’s Trumpian,” Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterPoll: McConnell is most unpopular senator Trump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand The Hill's 12:30 Report: Pelosi looks to squash fight with progressives MORE (D-Mont.) said of Sanders’s grand vision, which some Democrats see as about as realistic as President TrumpDonald John TrumpCould Donald Trump and Boris Johnson be this generation's Reagan-Thatcher? Merkel backs Democratic congresswomen over Trump How China's currency manipulation cheats America on trade MORE’s 2016 campaign promise to build a wall along the southern border and have Mexico pay for it.

“Higher ed is out of control cost-wise, we’ve got to do some things about it, but you can’t just say it’s going to happen. You have to have a plan to make it happen,” he said. “I agree with what he’s trying to do here, but I don’t think just saying it makes it happen.”

“It is a lot of money,” he added.

Sanders says he would pay for his plan with a tax on Wall Street speculation. It would erase the debts of an estimated 45 million graduates.

His main progressive rival, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren adds her pronouns to Twitter bio Biden leads, Warren and Sanders tied for second in new poll The Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants MORE (D-Mass.), who has been rising steadily in the polls, has a competing proposal that would spend $1.25 trillion to forgive student debt and eliminate tuition at public colleges.

The calls for student debt forgiveness and free public universities come on top of other expensive proposals that Sanders and Warren have backed, such as “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal, which have been estimated to cost about $28 trillion to $32 trillion and $18 trillion to $93 trillion, respectively, over 10 years.

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Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerTop Democrats demand security assessment of Trump properties Senate passes bill making hacking voting systems a federal crime Senators unload on Facebook cryptocurrency at hearing MORE (D-Va.) said erasing more than $1 trillion in student debt would help today’s graduates at the expense of future generations who would be stuck with an enormous federal debt, impacting everything from the value of the dollar, to interest rates, to the ability to pay for social services in the future.

Warner said he supports the goal of reducing student debt to spur economic growth and acknowledged that banks got bailouts — something Sanders highlighted when he unveiled his proposal Monday — but is worried about the nation’s fiscal health.

“I worry about the $23 trillion in debt. If we simply move more of that debt at the national level onto young people’s backs, that’s going to be a burden you’re still going to have to absorb as well,” he said.

Warner served on a bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of Six in 2011 that put together a plan to reduce the deficit by $3.7 trillion over 10 years. It was the last time there was a serious push in Congress to reduce the deficit.

The push by Sanders and Warren to erase hundreds of billions of dollars in debt comes at an awkward time for Democrats, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants GOP rattled by Trump rally Third Kentucky Democrat announces challenge to McConnell MORE (R-Ky.) wants to make 2020 a “referendum on socialism.”

“I would love to see the fiscal analysis of how you get from here to there. It seems to me to be another huge add to the debt, which is a big problem,” said Sen. Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoOvernight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Sanders mounts staunch defense of 'Medicare for All' | Biden, Sanders fight over health care heats up | House votes to repeal ObamaCare 'Cadillac Tax' | Dems want details on fetal tissue research ban Hillicon Valley: Senators unload on Facebook cryptocurrency plan | Trump vows to 'take a look' at Google's ties to China | Google denies working with China's military | Tech execs on defensive at antitrust hearing | Bill would bar business with Huawei Senators unload on Facebook cryptocurrency at hearing MORE (R-Idaho), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. 

Proponents of the bold liberal proposals argue that student debt forgiveness, Medicare for All and the Green New Deal would produce economic stimulus and savings that would defray their total costs.

One problem with erasing student debt, however, is that it would disproportionally benefit a relatively small slice of American society.

Only a third of American adults have four-year college degrees and they tend to earn more money than workers without college degrees. 

Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharThe Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants Biden, Harris set for second Democratic debate showdown Poll: McConnell is most unpopular senator MORE (D-Minn.), who is running for president as more of a centrist, has argued on the campaign trail that free college is unrealistic, telling students at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire: “I wish I could staple a free college diploma under every one of your chairs.”

Klobuchar has instead advocated for letting people with student debt refinance their obligations at lower interest rates.

Many Democratic senators say they would prefer a more moderate approach like Klobuchar’s.

“I think there should be a plan to help people with their financial debt but it’s probably going to be based on needs,” said Sen. Gary PetersGary Charles PetersHillicon Valley: Trump seeks review of Pentagon cloud-computing contract | FTC weighs updating kids' internet privacy rules | Schumer calls for FaceApp probe | Report says states need more money to secure elections Senators introduce legislation to boost cyber defense training in high school Alarm sounds over census cybersecurity concerns MORE (D-Mich.), who cited doctors in rural areas and teachers in low-income areas who would deserve debt forgiveness.

“I think we’ve got to think it through,” he said.

Sen. Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoDems open to killing filibuster in next Congress Overnight Defense: Woman accusing general of sexual assault willing to testify | Joint Chiefs pick warns against early Afghan withdrawal | Tensions rise after Iran tries to block British tanker Joint chiefs nominee: Trump's transgender policy about 'standards' MORE (D-Hawaii) said the bold proposals by Sanders and Warren “points out there are billions of dollars in student debt [and] we can’t even try to get a bill on the floor to enable them to refinance.”

Yet, Hirono also says that graduates should bear some responsibility for their debts.

“I had student debt but I also believe in the responsibility of paying the debt,” she said. “I also support the forgiving of student debt for people who go into certain kinds of needed fields.”

Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyDemocrats grill USDA official on relocation plans that gut research staff Trump's new labor chief alarms Democrats, unions Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers struggle to understand Facebook's Libra project | EU hits Amazon with antitrust probe | New cybersecurity concerns over census | Robocall, election security bills head to House floor | Privacy questions over FaceApp MORE Jr. (D-Pa.) said “in the short run we’re better off trying to reduce the monthly payment as best we can.”

“I don’t think there’s support here for that proposal,” he said of canceling more than a trillion dollars in student debt.

Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinCan new US Strategy on Women, Peace & Security give women a real seat at the table? Ask Afghan women Maryland lawmakers slam 'despicable' Trump remark about journalists on newsroom shooting anniversary Democrats leery of Sanders plan to cancel student loan debt MORE (D-Md.) said the idea of simply canceling existing debt is too simplistic.

“As far as existing debt, it’s not quite as simple as just canceling [it]. I know some of our candidates have suggested that,” he said. “I think you have to look at the circumstances and ground rules at the time” loans were taken out.

Cardin said he would be more sympathetic to helping people reorganize debts and make them easier to pay back.

Yet the idea of wiping away student debt is popular among many Democratic voters and lawmakers still remember how Sanders saw the appeal of free college before most others in their party.

Several Democrats declined on Tuesday to dismiss a blanket student debt amnesty out of hand.

“I want to do something about student debt,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDems open to killing filibuster in next Congress Democrats warm to idea of studying reparations Senate approves long-delayed tax treaties in win for business MORE (D-Ill.). “I’m open to suggestions.”