Swing-State Democrats Not Sold On Biden's Student Loan Forgiveness

Democrats in tough races aren't praising Biden for acting on one of his campaign promises.

Republicans were far from thrilled with President Joe Biden’s long-awaited action on student loan debt this week. But even swing-state Democrats facing tough elections this year made a point of greeting the news skeptically.

“As someone who’s paying off my own family’s student loans, I know the costs of higher education are too high,” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) said in a statement Wednesday. “And while there’s no doubt that a college education should be about opening opportunities, waiving debt for those already on a trajectory to financial security sends the wrong message.”

Ohio isn’t really a swing state anymore, but major spending by Republicans to boost Ryan’s opponent, J.D. Vance, in November’s U.S. Senate race shows it’s still in play. Ryan has been courting middle-of-the-road voters by running ads on Fox News and, in some instances, distancing himself from Biden.

After Biden announced up to $20,000 in student loan forgiveness for borrowers earning less than $125,000 a year, moderate Democrats were among the first to weigh in Wednesday.

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) said student loan forgiveness "sends the wrong message."
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) said student loan forgiveness "sends the wrong message."
Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.), a Democrat up for reelection, said Biden’s plan falls short in some areas, including when it comes to systemic changes that will help borrowers down the line.

“In my view, the administration should have further targeted the relief and proposed a way to pay for this plan,” he said. “While immediate relief to families is important, one-time debt cancellation does not solve the underlying problem.”

Bennet, however, is pleased that Biden’s plan includes changes to income-based repayment plans that will ease the burden especially on young borrowers.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.), who is seen as one of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats fighting for another term, doesn’t agree with Biden’s decision to opt for a one-time payment since it doesn’t addresses the root causes of the college affordability issue.

“We should be focusing on passing my legislation to expand Pell Grants for lower-income students, targeting loan forgiveness to those in need and actually make college more affordable for working families,” she said.

Though traditional borrowers are eligible for up to $10,000 in canceled debt, recipients of Pell Grants, given based on financial need, can receive up to $20,000 in forgiveness under Biden’s plan.

Critics also fear that Biden’s plan will continue to fuel inflation, which has tempered somewhat but is still at a 40-year high.

“Pouring roughly half a trillion dollars of gasoline on the inflationary fire that is already burning is reckless. Doing it while going well beyond one campaign promise ($10K of student loan relief) and breaking another (all proposals paid for) is even worse,” tweeted Jason Furman, a former economic adviser in the Obama White House.

Rep. Chris Pappas (N.H.), another Democrat in a battleground district, said Biden should have gone through Congress to get student loan cancellation done.

“Any plan to address student debt should go through the legislative process, and it should be more targeted and paid for so it doesn’t add to the deficit. The president’s plan also doesn’t address the underlying issue of the affordability of higher education,” he said.

Progressives who have long wanted to see debt forgiveness become a reality often point to the crushing economic weight of the collective $1.6 trillion owed by borrowers and how that debt can prevent people from buying homes, launching businesses and starting families. Republicans frame debt forgiveness as reckless spending that would unfairly benefit the nation’s top earners, college graduates.

Moderate Democrats hoping to make it through the midterm elections are cautiously distancing themselves from Biden, whose sagging approval rating has rebounded after he pushed to enact the climate and health care priorities of his domestic agenda.

Not every endangered Democrat was as dubious. Sen. Maggie Hassan (N.H.) doesn’t support canceling all student debt but found Biden’s approach “a balanced compromise ... that will help those who need it most.”

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