Democrats leery of Sanders plan to cancel student loan debt

Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill are balking at Sen. Bernie Sanders’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.

{mosads}Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton 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 Tester (D-Mont.) said of Sanders’s grand vision, which some Democrats see as about as realistic as President Trump’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 Warren (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.

{mossecondads}Sen. Mark Warner (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 McConnell (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 Crapo (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 Klobuchar (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 Peters (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 Hirono (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 Casey 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 Cardin (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 Durbin (D-Ill.). “I’m open to suggestions.”

Tags Amy Klobuchar Ben Cardin Bernie Sanders Bob Casey Dick Durbin Donald Trump education debt Elizabeth Warren Gary Peters Hillary Clinton Jon Tester Mark Warner Mazie Hirono Mike Crapo Mitch McConnell Student debt Student loan

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