President Joe Biden on Tuesday balked at a proposal backed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to unilaterally cancel $50,000 in student loan debt per borrower.
“I will not make that happen,” Biden said when asked at a Milwaukee town hall hosted by CNN Tuesday night if he would take executive action on loan forgiveness beyond the $10,000 his administration has already proposed.
“I’m prepared to write off the $10,000 debt, but not $50,000, because I don’t think I have the authority to do it by signing” an executive order, he added.
Biden also said he did not want the policy to disproportionately benefit high earners who went to elite colleges, a point Republicans have made in opposing the move.
In a joint statement Wednesday, Warren and Schumer urged Biden to reconsider, insisting that he does, in fact, have that authority. They cited past executive actions on student loan relief by former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
“The Biden administration has said it is reviewing options for canceling up to $50,000 in student debt by executive action,” the statement read, “and we are confident they will agree with the standards Obama and Trump used as well as leading legal experts who have concluded that the administration has broad authority to immediately deliver much-needed relief to millions of Americans.”
“Cancelling $50,000 in federal student loan debt will help close the racial wealth gap, benefit the 40% of borrowers who do not have a college degree, and help stimulate the economy,” they continued. “It’s time to act. We will keep fighting.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) also urged stronger action, focusing in particular on Biden’s proposal to emphasize debt relief for public, but not private, university attendees.
“Who cares what school someone went to?” She responded on Twitter after Biden’s town hall answer went viral. “Entire generations of working class kids were encouraged to go into more debt under the guise of elitism. This is wrong.”
Ocasio-Cortez also rejected the premise that funding early childhood education, which Biden floated as a possibility instead of a larger student loan relief package, has to be an either/or plan.
“Nowhere does it say we must trade-off early childhood education for student loan forgiveness,” she said. “We can have both.”
The plan, as proposed by Warren and Schumer in the Senate, and Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Alma Adams (D-N.C.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) in the House, would see Biden unilaterally wipe out billions of dollars in loan debt under the Higher Education Act of 1965.
The same day the plan was released, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration was reviewing its capacity to act on student debt through executive action, but noted Biden would “welcome” signing a bill that came from Congress.
Asked to clarify Biden’s position on Wednesday, Psaki said Biden does not support canceling up to $50,000 in student loan “without limitations,” adding that actions providing relief above $10,000 in loans ought to be “targeted.” She cited a number of factors that ought to be examined, such as tuition for private vs. public schools and graduate vs. undergraduate students.
“In the meantime, if Congress moves forward and sends him a package of $10,000 student debt relief, he’d be eager to sign that,” Psaki said at a White House press briefing.
Biden campaigned on legislation forgiving $10,000 worth of debt and eliminating all undergraduate student debt for people who make less than $125,000 a year and attended public or historically Black colleges and universities.
He’s also supported a plan wherein student debt could be forgiven for borrowers who use their degree to work in public service jobs like nonprofits.