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Student advocates struck by absence of debt forgiveness in Biden’s coronavirus plan

President-elect Joe Biden revealed his $1.9 trillion emergency relief plan on Jan. 14, which included aid to American families, businesses and communities. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

As President-elect Joe Biden released a sprawling $1.9 trillion rescue package on Thursday, some advocacy groups noticed an omission: a plan to cancel any amount of federal student loan debt.

Biden said canceling at least a portion of the $1.6 trillion in student debt held by about 45 million Americans would be a part of his economic recovery plan after his election in November. That signaled to liberal consumer groups that debt forgiveness would be a priority, one that some hoped would warrant executive action.

But the absence of debt cancellation in Thursday’s rescue plan has rattled advocates and increased pressure on Biden to use his executive authority.

Calls grow for Biden to cancel student debt, alongside tensions surrounding the policy

In a joint statement, Americans for Financial Reform, the Center for Responsible Lending, Student Debt Crisis, Young Invincibles and the National Association of Consumer Advocates renewed their calls for the incoming president to provide relief to millions of borrowers.

“We hope the absence of debt cancellation in this package is a clear indication that President-Elect Biden is planning to act quickly to use his authority to cancel student debt through executive action,” the groups said.

But that appears less and less likely.

David Kamin, who will be deputy director of the National Economic Council in the Biden administration, told reporters last week that Biden would use executive authority to extend the moratorium on federal student loan payments before it ends this month. He said Biden supports congressional action to cancel $10,000 in education debt.

Biden has never committed to loan forgiveness through executive action and recently questioned whether such a move would be permissible.

“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 columnists, including The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty, in December. “Well, I think that’s pretty questionable. I’m unsure of that. I’d be unlikely to do that.”

Tumulty reported that Biden said he was “optimistic” that much of his agenda could make it through Congress.

Even though Democrats are set to control both chambers of Congress, they have a slim majority, and Republicans strongly oppose widespread debt cancellation. Democrats could use “budget reconciliation,” a once-a-year measure that would allow them to pass legislation without Republican votes. But with so many proposals under consideration, it is unclear whether debt cancellation is a top priority for a majority of the party’s lawmakers.

Biden, aiming to reopen schools, set to request infusion of cash

On Friday, 325 nonprofit and community organizations — including the National Action Network and Communications Workers of America — renewed calls for Biden to take action on loan forgiveness on his first day in office. In an updated letter to Biden and vice president-elect Kamala D. Harris, the groups say canceling student debt would stimulate the economy, help reduce racial wealth gaps, and could have a positive impact on health outcomes.

“Actionable steps to address long-standing inequitable issues are within reach,” said Dr. Maria Armstrong, executive director of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, which signed the letter. “Within the first 100 days, President Biden can narrow the opportunity gap by hitting the reset button with student loan debt. Families, particularly those of color, continue to pay on student loans acquired to further their education, in order to better serve communities in professions of public service. The teacher loan forgiveness program is not even close to enough.”