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Republicans take aim at Biden student loan forgiveness

GAO rules administration action is subject to Congressional Review Act

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., announced plans to use the Congressional Review Act to try to undo President Joe Biden's student loan forgiveness program.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., announced plans to use the Congressional Review Act to try to undo President Joe Biden's student loan forgiveness program. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Republicans are employing a new strategy to thwart President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan.

Republican Sens. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, John Cornyn of Texas and Joni Ernst of Iowa said Friday they will introduce a resolution under the Congressional Review Act to overturn Biden’s proposal, which would eliminate up to $20,000 in student loan debt per borrower.

Republicans say the plan, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates will cost $400 billion, is unconstitutional and outside the scope of the administration’s authority.

“President Biden’s student loan scheme does not ‘forgive’ debt, it just transfers the burden from those who willingly took out loans to those who never went to college, or sacrificed to pay their loans off,” Cassidy, the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said in a statement.

A spokesman for the Department of Education said it was regrettable that the GOP is determined to fight the debt relief plan.

“It’s a shame for working families across the country that Republican lawmakers continue to fight tooth and nail to deny critical relief to millions of their own constituents impacted by the pandemic,” a spokesman for the department said in an email.

The CRA allows Congress to overturn government agency rules. Efforts to invoke it require only a simple majority and are not subject to Senate filibuster rules, which require 60 votes for most legislation. 

Republicans have pledged to deploy such resolutions to block what they say are burdensome and flawed regulations put forth by the Democratic president. Earlier this month, they used a CRA resolution to disapprove of a Labor Department rule allowing retirement plans to consider climate factors in their investment decisions. Biden has vowed to veto the measure, and would likely veto the disapproval resolution on his debt relief plan as well.

The move to undo the student loan cancellation program came after the Government Accountability Office ruled Friday that the president’s initiative is subject to the Congressional Review Act. 

“We conclude that [Department of Education’s] Waivers and Modifications meet the definition of a rule under CRA and that no exception applies,” the GAO stated. “Therefore, [the department’s] Waivers and Modifications are subject to the requirement that they be submitted to Congress.” 

The Department of Education questioned the GAO’s decision.

The debt relief plan is based on “decades-old authority granted by Congress and is a result of the same procedures used by multiple administrations over the last two decades to protect borrowers from the effects of national emergencies,” a department spokesman said. “This longtime statutory authority has never been subject to the Congressional Review Act. GAO’s decision is at odds with clear longstanding practice, and the Department remains fully confident that its debt relief plan complies with the law.” 

Biden announced the student loan debt relief program in August, fulfilling a campaign promise and winning applause from progressives, some of whom had sought a far higher debt relief threshold. The plan would provide $10,000 in student loan forgiveness to borrowers earning up to $125,000 annually, with $20,000 in relief for Pell Grant recipients.

But Republicans have fought the proposal, calling it a “tuition bail out” that does nothing to rein in the cost of college while failing to provide aid for those who did not attend college or already paid off their debt.

“Despite the administration’s attempts at avoiding Congressional oversight, we’re working to protect hard working Americans and put a stop to the president’s reckless actions,” Ernst said in a news release.

Republicans have been battling Biden’s student loan relief plan in court as well. In February, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases that question the constitutionality of the debt relief program. Of the 49 Republicans in the Senate, 43 submitted a friend of the court brief alleging that the Biden administration lacked the authority to cancel the debt. The court is expected to rule this summer.

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