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Society

Legal Fight over Student Debt a Prelude to Political Battle

WASHINGTON — Facing the possibility that the Supreme Court will reject President Joe Biden’s plan for student loan forgiveness, the White House is aiming to turn the political heat toward Republicans while deflecting criticism from disappointed borrowers.

At stake is the loyalty of young, college-educated voters who are a critical part of the Democratic coalition that Biden is counting on to return him to the White House for a second term. And plenty of people are making sure he doesn’t forget.

“The president still has the responsibility to ensure that we see this become a reality,” said Wisdom Cole, national director of the NAACP Youth and College Division. “There are folks that are still suffering, and we want to ensure that they have the opportunity to see relief.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday the president would make it clear to borrowers that “we have your back,” but it’s far from clear that the administration has a backup idea to cancel debt.

“We do not have another plan,” she told reporters. “This is our plan. This is it.”

In arguments this week, the court’s conservative majority appeared deeply skeptical of Biden’s plan, which would slash federal student loan debt burdens through an executive order he signed last year.

Student debt relief advocates gather outside the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

In all, up to 43 million Americans could benefit. Out of the 26 million who have applied for relief, 16 million have been approved, according to administration officials. However, all relief has been on hold amid legal challenges from Republicans.

“I’m confident we’re on the right side of the law,” Biden told reporters Wednesday at the White House. “I’m not confident about the outcome of the decision.”

With a Supreme Court ruling expected by summer, the White House is vigorously labeling culprits — and is sure to hit that message even harder if the court kills the program.

“Currently, the only thing blocking that plan is opponents of the plan suing us,” Biden said Monday during a Black History Month reception at the White House.

Foreshadowing what aides said would be his likely political message should the court overturn the plan, Biden criticized Republicans who sued and those in Congress who cheered them on.

“They’re the same folks who had hundreds of thousands of dollars, even millions of dollars, in pandemic relief loans forgiven,” he said. “And many of them in Congress, by the way, Republicans, who voted for tax cuts (that) overwhelmingly benefit the wealthiest people in America, who are the people who paid to bring these suits.”

Clearly, not everyone sees it that way. In fact, Republicans seem happy to fight over student debt relief, saying it’s actually the Democrats’ plan that is a “bailout for the wealthy.”

“Biden’s student loan cancellation unfairly punishes Americans who saved for college or made a different career choice,” Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, said in a statement on Tuesday. “While hardworking families struggle with soaring costs, Biden is giving a handout to the rich, and voters see right through this desperate vote grab.”

Some legal scholars have suggested that Biden’s plan was always on shaky legal ground, and they’ve urged the administration to start over. However, White House officials insist they’re still confident about their case.

One basis for that hope is that the justices may decide that the plaintiffs, which include several Republican-led states and two students, don’t have legal standing to sue.

The administration also draws parallels to the tough questioning over the Affordable Care Act more than a decade ago. The court eventually upheld most of that law’s provisions.

While publicly unwilling to entertain the prospects of a judicial brushback, Biden aides privately harbor the belief that for all the embarrassment, there is little to lose politically if the Supreme Court overturns the loan forgiveness program the president proposed and fought for.

The administration has communicated Biden’s efforts to the tens of millions of people whose emails were collected as part of the application process.

Survey data suggest a college degree is increasingly tied to identification with the Democratic Party. Forty-one percent of Democratic voters in 2019 had at least a college degree, up from just 22% in 1996, Pew Research Center surveys show. By comparison, 30% of GOP voters in 2019 had a degree, up slightly from 27% in 1996.

Biden won support from a majority of college-educated voters in the 2020 presidential election, according to AP VoteCast data.

In 2022, VoteCast found that college graduates voting in the midterm elections were slightly more likely than those without a degree to approve of Biden’s job handling student debt, 50% vs. 44%.

VoteCast also shows that the youngest midterm voters were especially likely to approve of Biden’s job handling student debt. Sixty percent of voters under 30 approved, compared with 39% of voters ages 65 and older.

Biden issued his debt-forgiveness executive order only after months of pressure from activists, something that Democratic lawmakers reminded demonstrators of outside the Supreme Court this week.

“All of you rallied around this country to try to make sure our president, who at the time was hesitant, would finally realize that this was not just a politically viable thing, but it was the right thing to do,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. “And after we get the president to sign the executive order, canceling student debt, bringing hope and promise to millions of people who had been begging, marching, what did Republicans do? What they always do, which is snatch hope from the American people.”

Even if the broad debt cancellation is overturned, other major policies enacted by the Education Department would remain in place. For example, the agency revamped a loan forgiveness program for public workers, making it easy for them to get their debt erased after 10 years of payments. The department separately made it easier for borrowers to get their debt canceled if they were defrauded by their schools.

Through those policies and others, the department says it has already provided $48 billion in loan relief to 1.8 million borrowers.

In perhaps the biggest change in the long run, the administration is now pursuing a new loan repayment plan that promises to serve as a safety net for borrowers. The plan would lower monthly payments for many borrowers and allow more to pay nothing at all while their incomes stay below a certain level. And for many borrowers, the plan would erase all remaining debt after 10 years of payments.

However, no issue has attracted the same amount of attention as debt cancellation.

Melissa Byrne, an activist who helped organize demonstrations outside the Supreme Court, said the issue won’t go away if payments go back into effect.

“Every single month,” she said, “they’ll be reminded that the right-wing infrastructure stole their money.”

 

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