Embattled U.S. Democrats riled over Biden's student loan forgiveness

·4 min read

By Richard Cowan and Joseph Ax

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Joe Biden's move to waive college loan payments for millions of Americans drew criticism from some of his fellow Democrats, especially members of Congress facing the toughest re-election contests on Nov. 8.

The White House may have thought the plan would provide a nice election-year gift to those grappling with monthly loan payments while also boosting the prospects for Democrats in November, when Republicans are favored to win back control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Senate control also is at stake.

Many Democrats embraced the $10,000 loan forgiveness plan, including some in close races, such as Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia.

Yet Biden has managed to anger some of his party's most embattled lawmakers.

"We should focus on making higher education and technical schools more affordable in the first place and expose students to trades and apprenticeships that help them get good-paying jobs... without a mountain of debt," Representative Sharice Davids, the lone Democrat in Kansas' congressional delegation and one of the most endangered of this election season, said in a statement to Reuters.

That was one in an unusual series of rebukes to a president from lawmakers in his own party, complaining that Biden's program is both poorly targeted and plays into Republican accusations of being a "big-spending" party.

The White House has dodged questions about the cost, citing unknowns like how many borrowers would take advantage of the program.

Some non-governmental groups, however, have placed the total price tag at $300 billion to $600 billion.

"We should be focusing on passing my legislation to expand Pell Grants for lower income students, target loan forgiveness to those in need, and actually make college more affordable for working families," said Democratic Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, a first-term senator from Nevada, one of a handful of battleground states that will decide the Senate's fate for the next two years.

'BAND-AID' SOLUTION

"I'm happy for the folks who will get relief from this policy," said Representative Elissa Slotkin, of Michigan. "But this is a one-time Band-Aid that doesn't get to the root of the problem."

Instead, Slotkin said, the administration should pursue reforms such as including a cap on interest rates on student loans.

Those on the left wing of the Democratic party applauded Biden's move while calling for even more robust initiatives, such as free higher education.

Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal had urged Biden to cancel $50,000 in student loan debt per borrower, though she said his move was a step in the right direction.

In recent weeks, Democrats have been energized by a series of legislative wins, including a bill addressing climate change and lowering some prescription drug costs for senior citizens, allowing them to claim progress in the war against inflation.

The non-governmental Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which describes itself as non-partisan, said that its initial review suggested Biden's student loan plan was likely to increase inflation.

The plan, which will have to withstand a likely court challenge, gave Republicans a new opening as they argued it would stoke inflation while helping many wealthy borrowers.

"Thanks to Tim Ryan and Joe Biden, Ohio workers are paying off the loans of Harvard Law students. If this seems unfair and illegal, it's because it is," Republican U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance said on Twitter.

But Ryan, a Democrat who is running against Vance, was similarly critical. "Instead of forgiving student loans for six-figure earners, we should be working to level the playing field for all Americans, including an across-the-board tax cut for working- and middle-class families," Ryan said.

Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, saw a silver lining for the Democratic party, however.

In an interview, he said Biden's move could motivate young Democrats to show up at the polls in November, adding to the energy created by the U.S. Supreme Court's June decision to eliminate a nationwide right to abortion.

"The abortion decision is 10 times more important than student loans, but student loans may augment the level of enthusiasm among young people," he said.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax and Richard Cowan, additional reporting by Jarrett Renshaw, Alexandra Alper and David Lawder; Editing by Scott Malone and Rosalba O'Brien)