Student debt forgiveness campaigners step up pressure as Biden weighs options

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WASHINGTON — For student loan activists, the week started with hope as President Joe Biden gave his clearest indication that he was considering canceling federal debt rather than simply allowing borrowers to defer payments for the pandemic.

But that quickly gave way to disappointment when Biden signaled days later that any debt relief would be far less than campaigners wanted. So Melissa Byrne, one of the organizers leading the charge, got back to work.

First, she tweeted that activists need to “step up” their efforts, stay “warm + fuzzy” and “fight until we win”. (“White House staff read tweets,” she explained.) Then she and her allies immersed themselves in their group chats as they brainstormed ways to keep the pressure on.

“We have to keep an eye on the prize,” Byrne said.

The flurry of activity comes at a crucial time, with Biden saying he will make a decision in the coming weeks. After promising to fix the problem during his presidential campaign, he is now assessing how much federal student loan debt should be forgiven and who should benefit.

Critics warn that debt cancellation could irritate voters who have already paid off their loans, and Republicans describe the idea as a political giveaway in a midterm election year. However, an expansive approach could support young people whom Democrats see as central to their coalition, allowing Biden to deliver real results as many of his leftist proposals remain stalled on Capitol Hill.

John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, said student loan forgiveness is “a cornerstone of President Biden’s relationship with young Americans.”

Without young voters on board, “we don’t have a Democratic House, a Democratic Senate, and a Democratic president,” said Della Volpe, who worked as a consultant for Biden’s campaign.

About 43 million Americans owe $1.6 trillion on student loans, more than credit cards or car payments. It’s a growing problem for young people, who have taken on more and more debt to fund their education as public funding for colleges has shrunk.

And it’s a challenge that Biden has personally experienced. As he ran for office, he told a New Hampshire college student that he “went over $280,000 in debt” to pay for college and post-secondary education for his three children.

“I understand,” he said.

In a poll of Americans under 30 by Harvard Kennedy School and released Monday, 85% said the federal government should take action on student debt.

However, opinions were divided on the best way forward. Although 38% supported full cancellation, 21% wanted such a measure taken only for those with the greatest financial need. In addition, 27% wanted the government to help with debt repayment, but not debt cancellation.

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Biden said Thursday he was still considering what to do.

“I am carefully considering whether or not there will be additional debt forgiveness,” he said. “And I’ll have an answer on that in the next few weeks.”

His idea may include means testing, which involves limiting by income those who would have their debts forgiven.

“He’s spoken in the past about how, you know, he doesn’t believe that millionaires and billionaires, obviously, should benefit from this, or even the highest earners,” the press secretary said Thursday. of the White House, Jen Psaki. “So that’s definitely something he would look into.”

During the campaign, as Biden solidified his support for the Democratic primary, he pledged to “immediately” write off $10,000 in federal student loan debt per person. But he hasn’t used his executive authority to do so once in power — whether he has such power is up for debate in Washington — nor has Congress given following his promise.

Now, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., is calling for $50,000 in debt to be forgiven and some activists want all debt erased without exception.

Biden’s pending decision comes as he struggles to make progress on other parts of his liberal agenda that might appeal to young people, such as tackling climate change by developing clean energy.

“We need to motivate voters and show them that Democrats are fighting for them,” said Emma Lydon, who lobbies for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “And that’s a slam dunk way to do it.”

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, scoffed at the idea, tweeting that “desperate polls call for desperate measures.” He added: “Other bribe suggestions: forgive car loans? Forgive credit card debt? Forgive mortgages?”

Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who has worked with Biden’s campaign, didn’t mind the inevitable criticism.

“Voters who are going to complain about this, we don’t get them anyway,” she said.

However, the issue may still be contentious among Democrats, sometimes even evoking raw emotions.

“We just argued about this in a group chat last night,” Lake said.

An older woman who had paid off her debts didn’t like the idea, while a middle-aged man with children was enthusiastic.

Byrne is trying to tip the scales as much as she can, and on Friday she posted signs around downtown Washington with other activists.

“President Biden: Not 10,000, not 50,000, no means test,” read black letters on a bright pink background. “Cancel student debt, ALL THAT.”

Some of the signs went outside of locations where there would be parties during the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner weekend. Perhaps they would catch the eye of someone influential walking past in a tuxedo or evening dress.

While Biden’s final decision is unclear, Byrne said activists have already scored a victory.

“We won the argument that we need to write off student loan debt,” she said. “Now it’s about how much we can get.”

By CHRIS MEGERIAN, Associated Press

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