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In play to GOP base, House votes to block student loan relief

Biden promises veto, but Supreme Courts may have the final say on plan

Melissa Byrne, student loan activist and director of We, The 45 Million, introduces Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., to “Crappy” the poop emoji in the Cannon House Office Building as he heads to a vote on Tuesday.
Melissa Byrne, student loan activist and director of We, The 45 Million, introduces Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., to “Crappy” the poop emoji in the Cannon House Office Building as he heads to a vote on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Republicans on Wednesday approved legislation to block President Joe Biden’s student loan relief program, deploying a political strategy that pits working-class voters against young people with college degrees who are increasingly voting Democratic.

Wednesday’s action marks the first time Biden’s loan plan has come up for a standalone vote in Congress, although language to block loan forgiveness was incorporated into the GOP debt ceiling bill that passed the House last month. 

Republicans said the president’s proposal would add billions to the federal debt while doing nothing to address the rising cost of college. They also argued Biden’s plan is inherently unfair to those who already paid off their loans or did not attend college. 

“There’s no such thing as forgiveness,’’ said Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. “The Biden administration is simply transferring debt from borrowers who willingly took out student loans to hard-working taxpayers who did not.”

Biden announced the student loan 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, which has been put on hold by court challenges, would cancel up to $10,000 in debt for most students, and up to $20,000 for those who received a Pell Grant.

About 26 million people have applied for the program and more than 16 million applications were approved, according to a fact sheet prepared by the White House. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that eliminating the program would cut spending by $320 billion this fiscal year.

The joint resolution of disapproval passed the House on a 218-203 vote on Wednesday. Its fate in the Democratically-controlled Senate is unclear, however, and the White House said Biden would veto the measure if it reaches his desk. Ultimately, the legality of the proposal may be determined by the Supreme Court, which heard arguments in February on a pair of cases challenging Biden’s initiative. Justices are expected to issue a ruling by the conclusion of the term at the end of June.

Young voters shifting

If the legal status of the debt relief proposal remains unknown, its political implications are becoming clearer. For Republicans, the House debate offered an opportunity to solidify support among working-class voters without college degrees, a growing segment of the party’s base. 

“How do you tell someone who’s worked their way through college or joined the military … that they will now be saddled with a Harvard graduate’s underwater fire safety degree?” asked Rep. Aaron Bean, R.-Fla., during floor debate on the disapproval resolution.

Over the past 20 years, Americans with a college degree have become more likely to vote Democratic and education has replaced income as one of the most important predictors of partisan preference, said Dean Lacy, a professor of government at Dartmouth College.

From rhetoric denouncing “woke” policies to efforts to ban diversity initiatives on college campuses, “the narrative that Republicans are pitching to voters is that Democrats are college-educated elites who don’t represent the rest of America,” Lacy said. “They’re trying to portray people who go to college and come out with student loans as somehow privileged and that everybody else is paying those debts.”

That’s a message Republican presidential candidates have also seized on. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said during his presidential campaign announcement Monday that Biden “wants to make waitresses and mechanics pay for the student loans of lawyers and doctors making six figures.” 

While some doctors and lawyers earning over $100,000 would be eligible for loan cancellation under the  plan, the Penn Wharton Budget Model estimates that about two-thirds of the benefits would accrue to households making $88,000 or less, according to FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. The White House says 90 percent of the loan relief would go to those earning less than $75,000 annually.

Democrats say working class hurt

House Democrats said the GOP effort to derail Biden’s debt relief plan would disproportionately hurt female, Black, Latino and first-generation college students, as well as the working-class voters the GOP is seeking to reach.

Twelve percent of people aged 18-29 cited student loan debt and college affordability was one of their top three issues in 2022, according to a survey by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. Among Black respondents, the number was nearly 1 in 4.

 “Congress needs to help fix this damaged economy which gets more unequal and inequitable every single day,” said Rep. Maxwell Frost, D.-Fla. “To young people, to people with student debt, just know that the Republican Party, my colleagues in this chamber, are fighting to take away the relief you need and deserve.”

At one point, Frost took Republicans to task, asking “why do you bring … bigoted logic to this issue as it relates to students, but not any other issue?” Those remarks prompted Foxx to make a motion asking for his words to be taken down. Frost withdrew the comments without objection.

Melissa Byrne, founder of We, The 45 Million, an advocacy group for student loan relief that was on Capitol Hill this week lobbying for Biden’s plan, said Republican efforts were motivated by politics, not policy.

“They are willing to sacrifice 20 million-ish of their own constituents in order to hurt Joe Biden,” Byrne said. “It’s basically just cruel politics.”

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