President-elect Joe Biden told newspaper columnists on Wednesday that he was “unlikely” to pursue a plan pushed by Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to unilaterally wipe out billions of dollars worth of student loan debt.
Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, had teamed with Warren, a progressive rival-turned-ally of Biden’s, to press Biden on a proposal to eliminate up to $50,000 of student loan debt per borrower.
“It’s arguable that the president may have the executive power to forgive up to $50,000 in student debt,” Biden told a group of newspaper columnists, according to The Washington Post. “Well, I think that’s pretty questionable. I’m unsure of that. I’d be unlikely to do that.”
Biden contrasted his position on student debt with his willingness to use the president’s executive powers to overturn several actions by the outgoing Trump administration, including protecting Dreamers and rejoining the Paris climate accord. But he also indicated he was unlikely to pursue the broad executive actions some progressive groups have pushed for.
“I’ve spent most of my career arguing against the imperial presidency,” Biden continued. “We got three equal branches of government. I’m confident that there are a number of areas that are of such consequence that they go beyond the partisan boundaries.”
Schumer and Warren began their call for unilateral action on student debt in September, introducing a resolution urging the next president to wipe out up to $50,000 in debt per borrower. The duo argued this step could help invigorate the coronavirus-stricken economy and shrink the racial wealth gap.
The plan received renewed attention after the November election when it became clear that Democrats would either be in the minority or wield control with a bare 50 seats in the next Senate.
Biden has not disputed the severity of the student loan crisis. During the campaign, he said he wanted to pass legislation forgiving $10,000 worth of debt per person 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 backed expanding income-based repayment programs and fixing and expanding loan forgiveness programs for those with public service jobs.
“Young people are getting crushed by the burden of student debt,” Biden said on Wednesday as he introduced Miguel Cardona, his pick for secretary of education.
But the president-elect’s comments to the newspaper columnists indicate that he questions the executive authority to act unilaterally on student debt, even though legislation grants the secretary of education broad powers over student loans. The Trump administration has relied on those powers to suspend student loan interest and payments during the coronavirus pandemic.
While Schumer and Warren have led the push for a $50,000-per-borrower cancellation, the broad idea of canceling some amount of student loan debt has support throughout the Democratic Party, including from key teachers unions and the NAACP.
South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, the House Democratic whip who is arguably Biden’s most powerful congressional ally, told The New York Times earlier this month that Biden should turn to executive action on the issue if working with Congress fails.
“Let them sue,” Clyburn said, referring to likely Republican lawsuits over such a plan. “They’re not the only ones that can employ lawyers.”