The Oklahoman

Pressure on Biden rises for student debt Plan B

Justices’ concerns could mean program in peril

- Joey Garrison

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden faces growing pressure to develop an alternativ­e plan to cancel student loan debt for millions of Americans after the executive action he took last year ran into a buzz saw from a majority of Supreme Court justices Feb. 28.

The court’s conservati­ve majority expressed deep skepticism over Biden’s plan to wipe out $400 billion in student loan debt, suggesting the president oversteppe­d his authority during oral arguments in a closely watched challenge of Biden’s program.

Some liberal constituen­cy groups and student loan advocates want Biden to work on a backup plan to provide sweeping debt relief given the strong possibilit­y the high court strikes down Biden’s plan.

But publicly, the White House won’t even entertain the idea of a Plan B, insisting Biden followed the law when he cited a provision in the 2003 HEROES Act that allows the education secretary to “waive” or “modify” student loans during a national emergency.

As the 26 million Americans who applied for student loan cancellati­on await a court decision likely to come in June, the White House is only willing to talk about Plan A.

Even Biden seemed doubtful the Supreme Court will uphold his action. “I’m confident we’re on the right side of the law,” Biden told reporters the day after the court hearing. “But I’m not confident about the outcome of the decision yet.”

If the high court strikes down Biden’s plan, what next? This is the tricky part – and there is no consensus.

White House officials had reservatio­ns about the legality of canceling student loan debt before Biden took action in August. Ultimately, in choosing the HEROES Act, Biden’s legal team pursued what it thought was the most viable path that could withstand legal scrutiny.

The clearest option to achieve the same goal – forgiving up to $20,000 in student loan debt for low- and middleinco­me households – would be for Congress to act. But even when Democrats controlled both chambers, canceling student loan debt lacked enough support for passage. Now that Republican­s have taken over the House, there’s likely no legislativ­e route.

Biden could propose a narrow plan that still invokes the HEROES Act, some legal experts argue.

Others believe Biden could turn to the Higher Education Act of 1965, which Biden and past administra­tions have cited to provide student loan debt relief to certain categories of borrowers such as teachers and the disabled.

The White House has touted its previous efforts to cancel debt through the Public Service Loan Forgivenes­s program. However, that approach is available only to borrowers working in the public sector. No existing programs provide relief comparable to that posed by Biden’s plan.

Instead, Biden might have to revert to smaller steps.

For example, alongside the debt forgivenes­s plan, Biden introduced a new program designed to more directly tie borrowers’ monthly loan payments to their income. The plan, which is still going through the Education Department’s regulatory process, would reduce some borrowers’ payments to 5% of their discretion­ary income.

While a Supreme Court defeat on student loan forgivenes­s would certainly be a setback for Biden, it could help him politicall­y.

Biden, who is widely expected to announce a 2024 reelection bid this spring, could point to the Supreme Court blocking student loan debt forgivenes­s as another example of a court he’s argued is part of an increasing­ly extreme “ultra-MAGA” Republican Party.

The court’s Dobbs decision last year, which found no constituti­onal right to an abortion and overturned Roe v. Wade, energized female voters during the midterm elections, helping Democrats exceed expectatio­ns.

Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, executive director of NextGen America, the largest young voter mobilizati­on group in the U.S., foresees a similar dynamic in 2024 if the Supreme Court rejects Biden’s debt cancellati­on.

“Blocking progress for 40 million Americans, especially young Americans, on student debt policy to radically transform their lives will be a huge mobilizing factor to turn people out in 2024,” she said.

Biden has already warmed up a message tailored for the campaign trail – contrastin­g his efforts to help Americans saddled with student debt to Republican­s passing tax cuts for corporatio­ns.

“They’re the same folks who had hundreds of thousands of dollars – even millions of dollars – in pandemic relief loans forgiven,” Biden said recently, “and who voted for tax cuts for overwhelmi­ngly benefit the wealthiest people in America.”

Having invested so much in a student loan debt plan tied up in court, the White House isn’t eager to talk about possible defeat.

But it might have to pivot.

As a Supreme Court decision draws nearer, millions of student loan borrowers are going to start asking, “What’s next?” if Biden loses the fight.

A moratorium on student loan payments – extended multiple times during the pandemic – will come to an end two months after the court’s decision.

Contributi­ng: Chris Quintana, Nirvi Shah and John Fritze

 ?? ?? Protesters gather at the Supreme Court before oral arguments in two cases that challenge President Joe Biden’s $400 billion student loan forgivenes­s plan. MEGAN SMITH/USA TODAY FILE
Protesters gather at the Supreme Court before oral arguments in two cases that challenge President Joe Biden’s $400 billion student loan forgivenes­s plan. MEGAN SMITH/USA TODAY FILE

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