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Biden Plan to Forgive Student Debt Hinges on Democratic Control of Senate

President-elect Joe Biden’s ability to deliver on his plan to forgive hundreds of billions of dollars in student debt faces steep odds unless Democrats take control of the Senate.

Barring that outcome—which hinges on two Georgia races in January—Democrats have urged a second option: bypassing Congress through executive action. It isn’t clear whether such a move would survive a legal challenge.

During the election campaign, Mr. Biden said he would push to forgive $10,000 in debt for every American with federal student loans to help them cope with the economic disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

He has also called for forgiving any student debt that covered tuition at public colleges for borrowers earning under $125,000, and any student debt owed by those who show they were defrauded by for-profit colleges.

Congressional Democrats sought to forgive $10,000 for all borrowers early this year as part of a broad pandemic-relief bill known as the Cares Act, but the Republican-controlled Senate opposed it. The two parties compromised on a provision to suspend student-debt payments through Sept. 30.

A Senate Republican aide recently said the party continues to oppose Mr. Biden’s debt-forgiveness plans. Senate Republicans have opposed Democratic proposals for large-scale debt forgiveness, which would drive up the record budget deficit without offsetting tax increases or savings.

President-elect Joe Biden spoke in Wilmington, Del., earlier this month.

Photo: Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) urged the new Biden administration to forgive student debt through executive action in a recent Washington Post op-ed. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate’s top Democrat, supported the move in an interview with author Anand Giridharadas published Nov. 3.

The pair were among 13 Democrats who introduced a resolution in September urging the next president to cancel up to $50,000 in student debt for each borrower through executive action. The full Senate didn’t act on the resolution.

“I do expect that the Biden administration will take some action on student debt outside of anything that happens through Congress,” said Robert Shireman, an Education Department official in the Obama administration who is now a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank. “The question is how far they will go.”

A Biden campaign spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment this month. Last summer, a Biden campaign official said Mr. Biden wouldn’t rule out any options to forgive student debt, including executive action.

President Trump used executive action last summer to extend the suspension of student-loan payments mandated by the Cares Act through the end of the year. The action didn’t forgive interest or principal on student loans.

Mark Kantrowitz, a higher-education expert who runs a website that advises families on student-loan options, said Mr. Trump’s move was illegal because suspending interest on student loans universally..

“Someone could have gone to court to block the extension,” Mr. Kantrowitz said. But given that the move appeared to have bipartisan support and cost roughly $15 billion in foregone interest, “nobody was going to do that.”

Debt forgiveness is part of Mr. Biden’s broader higher-education agenda. He also wants to make public colleges tuition-free for students from households earning less than $125,000 a year, and to double the maximum amount of Pell grants—which can be used to cover living expenses and don’t need to be repaid—to roughly $13,000 a year for low- and modest-income students. Republicans have signaled opposition to free-college plans.

Forgiving debt—as opposed to suspending payments—through executive action would likely face a court challenge from Republicans, Mr. Kantrowitz said.

Mr. Biden’s plan faces other challenges. The campaign hasn’t specified how he would pay for debt forgiveness, although he has separately called for tax increases of about $4 trillion over a decade to pay for a variety of programs.

About 42 million Americans owe $1.55 trillion in federal student debt, Education Department data show. Forgiving $10,000 for every borrower would cost roughly $370 billion, according to an analysis by Preston Cooper, visiting fellow at the Foundation for Research and Economic Opportunity, a center-right think tank.

Almost 15 million borrowers would see their debts wiped away, Education Department data show. Another 9 million would see them slashed by half or more. The rest would have $10,000 forgiven but still owe more than half their original balance.

In a September 2019 Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 57% of respondents opposed “immediately canceling and forgiving all current student loan debt.”

There are also potential tax consequences. Generally, forgiven debt of any kind is considered taxable income by the Internal Revenue Service. Forgiving huge portions of debt could lead to thousands of dollars in tax bills for individual households.

And without restrictions on new lending, the U.S. would risk another run-up in student debt.

Students might yet see some relief. For example, Mr. Biden could extend Mr. Trump’s action to suspend monthly student payments, interest free, into next year, Mr. Shireman said. Mr. Biden could also loosen existing rules that entitle borrowers defrauded by for-profit colleges to have their debts forgiven, he said.

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