Pressure builds on Biden ahead of student loan cliff

President BidenJoe BidenNew York woman arrested after allegedly spitting on Jewish children Former Sen. Donnelly confirmed as Vatican ambassador Giuliani associate sentenced to a year in prison in campaign finance case MORE is facing an avalanche of pressure over his administration’s plans to require millions of Americans to resume student loan payments in the coming weeks. 

In recent days, the White House has drawn widespread blowback as advocates and progressives implore the administration to push back, or forego entirely, a February date to lift a pandemic forbearance on student loan payments. 

“This is going to be a hard blow to people who have struggled throughout this pandemic. It's the wrong move,” Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenDemocrats call on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans Biden stiff arms progressives on the Postal Service Trump by the numbers: 2024 isn't simple MORE (D-Mass.) said this week.

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Student loan payments were initially paused nationwide in March 2020 under a moratorium enacted by then-President TrumpDonald TrumpJudge rules Alaska governor unlawfully fired lawyer who criticized Trump Giuliani led fake electors plot: CNN Giuliani associate sentenced to a year in prison in campaign finance case MORE, which has been extended several times under the Trump and Biden administrations. 

Biden last extended the hold in the summer through Jan. 31, in what the administration described then as the "final extension.” And, despite growing calls from progressives calling for another extension in light of the ongoing pandemic, the White House hasn’t moved from its position in recent days.

"We're still assessing the impact of the omicron variant, but a smooth transition back into repayment is a high priority for the administration,” White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiBiden to meet with national security team this weekend on Russia-Ukraine The Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems look to repackage BBB into salvageable bill Kaleigh Rogers discusses new voting restrictions MORE said last week.

Those comments have become fodder for criticism on social media and added fuel to a continued push by progressives urging the president to use his executive power to unilaterally cancel student loan debt.

Biden has pushed in the past to cancel up to $10,000 in student loan debt for individuals, saying in February he was “prepared to write off” the amount, while also pushing back on calls by other top Democrats to go higher or forgive all federal student loans entirely.

But there are divisions among Democrats over whether Biden even has the power to take unilateral action on the issue. 

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Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems look to repackage BBB into salvageable bill The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden clarifies his remarks on Russia Democrats hope to salvage Biden's agenda on Manchin's terms  MORE (D-Calif.) said in July that Biden “can postpone, he can delay, but he does not have that power,” adding “that would best be an act of Congress.” But Warren and other progressives have maintained since then that Biden could forgive federal student loans with the stroke of a pen.

White House chief of staff Ron KlainRon KlainThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden clarifies his remarks on Russia Klain: 'No ambiguity' on US response if Russia invades Ukraine The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Connected Commerce Council - Dems regroup as Biden agenda stumbles MORE said in April that the administration planned to produce a memo on Biden’s legal authority on the issue within a few weeks. “And then he’ll look at that legal authority, he’ll look at the policy issues around that, and he’ll make a decision,” he said.  

Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarSenate needs to confirm Deborah Lipstadt as antisemitism envoy — Now Overnight Defense & National Security — DOD watchdog to review extremism screening Omar calls for closure of Guantánamo Bay prison after 20 years of 'lawlessness and cruelty' MORE (D-Minn.) recently led a group of lawmakers in October calling for the memo to be released to the public. Rep. Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyHouse votes to award medal to Willie O'Ree, first Black NHL player It's time for President Biden to use his vast clemency power Ayanna Pressley says she has tested COVID-19 positive in breakthrough case MORE (D-Mass.), who also signed on to the letter at the time, said communication with the Biden administration remains “ongoing” on the issue. 

In the first year of Biden’s presidency, his office has touted its approval of “more than $11.5 billion in loan cancellation for over 580,000 borrowers.” But that forgiveness extends only to certain cases, including borrowers with total and permanent disabilities, those who attended now-defunct schools or public service workers.

Many have cheered the actions made by the administration so far.

“Is it as big as forgiving $10,000 of debt for everybody? Or forgiving outright $1.6 trillion? No. But in a normal year, I think these would be really big steps forward,” Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, told The Hill on Thursday.

But others also say more must be done to aid borrowers in a student loan system that data has shown places a disproportionate burden on people of color.

While the Federal Reserve estimated earlier this year that more than $1.7 trillion in student loan debt had been racked up by tens of millions of borrowers nationwide, research has shone a light on racial disparities that persist within those numbers.

A 2016 report released by The Brookings Institution found that Black students owed an average of $7,400 more than their white counterparts after graduation and said that gap “more than triples to a whopping $25,000” over four years.

The report also found that 7.6 percent of Black college graduates were more likely to default on their debt in the four years after graduating, compared to 2.4 percent of white college graduates. 

And while the report said Hispanic borrowers, at the time, shared similar levels of debt to white graduates, it found they also were “more than twice as likely to default” than their white peers.

“That's a very similar population to people who've been most financially impacted by COVID,” Winston Berkman-Breen, deputy director of advocacy and policy counsel at the Student Borrower Protection Center, told The Hill. 

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“Not only is continuing the pause continuing a racial justice initiative, canceling student loan debt is a way to sort of reset some of the racial injustices that have happened in terms of how different communities bear the burden of student loan debt in this country,” he added.

As the White House presses on with plans to resume student loan payments on Feb. 1, Sen. Raphael WarnockRaphael WarnockThese Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Perdue proposes election police force in Georgia Kelly takes under-the-radar approach in Arizona Senate race MORE (D-Ga.) led a group of senators in sending a letter this month calling on the administration to waive interest on federal student loans, which has also been halted through the pandemic public health emergency.

Not all progressives are on board with the effort, with some continuing the push for the overall pause on loan payments to be continued amid the pandemic or wiped out completely.

“No. We need cancellation,” Omar said recently when asked if the push went far enough.

But senators said they want to get as much relief for borrowers as possible, with roughly half a month to go until federal student loan payments are scheduled to resume.

“I'm for the most extensive relief we can get for students. I mean, I think this is really bad for the economy,” said Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenThese Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Democrats call on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans Schumer opted for modest rules reform after pushback from moderates MORE (D-Ore.), who also signed on to the letter spearheaded by Warnock.

The White House did not immediately respond to questions about whether it supports the senators’ proposal.

Psaki said the White House will release more details about its plans in the weeks ahead and “engage directly with student loan borrowers to ensure that they have the resources they need and are in the appropriate repayment plan.”