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Joe Biden

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When they proposed last week that the next president knock $50,000 off all student loan borrowers’ debts, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Elizabeth Warren pitched the idea as a political winner for Democrats.

A recent poll by a progressive think tank shows that “forgiving student debt is extraordinarily popular with voters and that it enjoys broad, bipartisan support,” Schumer, of New York, and Warren, of Massachusetts, wrote in a post on the site of the group Data for Progress.

But on the campaign trail, Democrats in seven tight races that will determine control of the Senate apparently disagree. The candidates, running in moderate states, are keeping their distance from Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s two largest proposals on higher education -- broadly canceling debt and making tuition free at two- and four-year public colleges -- as well as Schumer and Warren's idea.

None of the Democratic candidates, in centrist states like Colorado and Iowa, are mentioning either of Biden’s proposals on their campaign websites. Raising questions about whether Democrats would go as far as Biden on the debt relief or eliminating tuition even if they were to win a majority, the candidates in the races also will not say if they support Biden’s proposals.

One Democratic candidate, Jon Ossoff, who trails Republican senator David Perdue in Georgia by 4.3 percent in RealClear Politics’ average of the polls that have been taken, does note on his site that "so many Americans today are held back by student debt -- can’t start a business, start a family, or buy a home -- because they can’t keep up with student loan payments."

Ossoff said, “I support a generous forgiveness program for those struggling to pay off their student loans, caps on interest rates to relieve financial stress for all borrowers, and a program that links federal student loan payments to income so paying off student loans is never a financial hardship.” But a campaign spokesman declined to say more when asked if Ossoff supports Biden’s specific proposals.

In other cases, Democrats in the key races are mentioning only smaller ideas like increasing Pell Grants or reforming the existing Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which has been criticized as too complex and often leading to applicants being rejected.

For example, John Hickenlooper, a former Democratic governor of Colorado who is trying to unseat Republican senator Cory Gardner, says on his site, “Student loan debt is a crushing burden for tens of millions of Americans. It is larger than the GDP of 175 countries. This debt load limits future opportunities and is a drag on our economy. If elected to the U.S. Senate, I will fight to make higher education affordable for all Americans.”

But Hickenlooper does not mention canceling loans, instead backing ideas like “ensuring service- and mission-based pathways to loan forgiveness by expanding Public Student Loan Forgiveness” and “expanding Pell Grant eligibility.”

Cal Cunningham, a Democrat leading Republican senator Thom Tillis in North Carolina by 3.6 percent in the RealClear Politics average, says he “will lead the fight to lower the cost of college, expand access to community college and technical training, and reduce the burden of student loan debt.” The site and the campaign wouldn’t offer any details. But in an op-ed he wrote in the University of North Carolina’s campus newspaper, Cunningham wrote, “The opportunity to pursue higher education should be available to anyone who seeks it -- not just a privilege for those who can afford it.”

He did not mention debt cancellation or making tuition free, but wrote, “We can start by expanding Pell Grants, fixing the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, and giving students the ability to refinance their loans at a lower rate. We should also expand and support the American Opportunity Tax Credit and work to remove cost as a barrier to community college and technical training. “

Theresa Greenfield, the Democrat running against Republican senator Joni Ernst in Iowa, also does not mention the broad cancellation of student debt as Biden is proposing on her website, but her campaign spokeswoman Izzi Levy said Greenfield would strengthen the public service debt forgiveness program and expanding loan forgiveness for farmers. But she declined to say if Greenfield would go further and support Biden’s proposal.

In a campaign ad, Greenfield said her late husband had gotten a job as an electrical lineman after going through an electrical program and that she would make community colleges “debt-free.” Greenfield, who leads Ernst by 0.4 percent in the average of polls, also said on her website that she would “fully fund” Pell Grants. But Levy declined to say whether Greenfield would support Biden’s plan to make four-year colleges free as well.

Rather, Levy said Greenfield is “committed to helping every Iowan get the high-quality, affordable education that’s right for them -- a sharp contrast with Senator Ernst, who campaigned on shutting down the Department of Education and voted to cut billions from the Pell Grant program and against letting student borrowers refinance their loans.”

Mark Kelly, who leads Republican senator Martha McSally, of Arizona, by 6.7 percent in the RealClear Politics average of polls, expresses support on his site for those in student debt, noting, “As the proud parent of an Arizona State University student, Mark knows what a great public higher education institution can do for its students and our economy -- and he’s committed to making sure more students gain that experience without the burden of crushing debt.”

Kelly, though, does not mention canceling debt or the free college idea, saying only he’d “start with fully funding Pell Grants and other financial aid, and lowering interest rates on federal student loans. The federal government should never use our students and their families to make money.”

Pope McCorkle, director of Duke University’s Polis: Center for Politics, who has been following the North Carolina Senate race, said he’s not surprised. “I think Democrats have concerns in these contested races about being tax-and-spenders,” he said.

And the free college and debt cancellation proposals could be used as “exhibit one and exhibit two” in a campaign when Tillis is accusing Cunningham of “embracing Bernie Sanders’s socialist agenda.”

The Penn Wharton Budget Model last week estimated the cost of Biden’s free college plan at $1.38 trillion over 10 years. The Wall Street Journal estimates the debt cancellation proposal would cost another $1 trillion.

“I think if Cunningham thought they were popular, he’d be talking about them,” McCorkle said.

The Democratic candidates’ decision not to go as far as Biden is proposing, at least publicly, reflects their “general strategy of trying to be as nonprogressive as possible without slipping too close to Republican talking points,” said Mack Shelley, chairman of the Iowa State University political science department, who has been following Greenfield’s race.

National Democratic campaign committees “seem to be more worried about turning off Trump-demographic voters than about working to attract support from younger and more diverse voter bases,” he said. “Theresa Greenfield’s Iowa Senate campaign has focused on supporting small-scale ameliorative improvements in education support and have shied away from larger-scale initiatives such as Sanders-style tuition-free higher education for all. While this approach may help to attract some moderate voters, it runs the risk of demotivating a large part of the Democratic base and making it more difficult to expand the electorate from a progressive direction,” Shelley said

The moderate stances also run counter to the contention by progressives and even the Senate’s top Democrat that large-scale debt cancellation has broad bipartisan support.

The Data for Progress poll, taken between Sept. 11 and 14 and cited by Schumer and Warren, found that a third of those surveyed strongly support the idea of canceling $50,000 of student debt of all borrowers making $125,000 or less annually, while another 26 percent are somewhat supportive of the idea. Only 19 percent were strongly opposed.

It also found a majority of Republicans are at least open to it, with 26 percent of Republicans strongly supporting the idea, and another 27 percent somewhat supportive of it. Among Republicans 45 years old and younger, 43 percent strongly supported the idea, and 28 percent were somewhat supportive.


However, the positions of the candidates create even more uncertainty over how far Senate Democrats would be willing to go, if they were to take control of the upper chamber. In their proposal for another stimulus package, Senate Democrats have endorsed excusing student loan borrowers from making payments during the coronavirus pandemic, and guaranteeing each will have at least $10,000 in debt canceled -- far less than the $50,000 in relief Schumer and Warren proposed the next president cancel, and not as far as Biden’s proposal.

Biden using his authority to forgive $50,000 in debt, as Schumer and Warren want, would mean sidestepping Congress. But it’s unclear how much Democratic support it has. Only 13 Senate Democrats joined Schumer and Warren in making their proposal. Conservative Democratic senators like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Alabama’s Doug Jones, who is also in a tight election, didn’t respond when asked if they supported it.

If Biden’s proposal were to come to a vote, McCorkle said the moderate Democratic candidates could go further than what they are telling voters, particularly if Schumer and Biden twist arms.

But Shelley said Democratic congressional leaders have also been willing to give members facing tough re-elections “hall passes,” excusing them from voting along with the party. An example, he said, was when Cindy Axne, a Democratic Iowa congresswoman, voted against the Democratic House’s $3 trillion HEROES Act coronavirus relief bill.

And even if Democrats were to win the majority, they might not have enough of a majority to pass either the free college or debt cancellation proposal without Republican support -- unless they are willing to change the rules.

Democrats need to pick up four seats to hold only a one-vote advantage. Democrats could also control the Senate by gaining three seats, which would lead to a 50-50 tie, and if Biden wins the presidency, Kamala Harris would cast the deciding vote as vice president. They would still need as many as 10 Republican votes to get the 60 votes to prevent opponents from blocking a vote.

Senate Republicans during negotiations over the coronavirus relief packages considered by Congress have objected to including even $10,000 in debt cancellation. Iris Palmer, senior adviser on higher education issues at the left-of-center think tank New America, said it’s hard to see enough Republicans supporting the cost of large-scale debt cancellation to allow a proposal to come up for a vote.

Which is why some think Democrats, if they take over the Senate, would have to get rid of the ability of the minority party in the Senate to filibuster and allow a vote if there are only 51 votes.

“It’s hard to see a path for any meaningful higher education efforts for students without stopping [Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell from blocking the path with a filibuster,” said Eli Zupnik, former communications director for the Senate’s top Democrat on education issues, Patty Murray, who is now running a group of former Democratic operatives called Fix Our Senate. The group is pushing Senate Democratic leaders, if they were to take power, to do away with the 60-vote requirement for bringing bills to the floor so Republicans cannot block progressive proposals.

The debate over the prospects of proposals like debt cancellation, however, gets into the minutiae of Senate procedure. Some, like Jessica Thompson, associate vice president at the left-of-center Institute for College Access & Success, said that even without Republican support, a Democratic majority could pass debt cancellation through a budget measure called reconciliation, which would only require majority support.

But others, like Jon Fansmith, government relations director at the American Council on Education, say that could be politically difficult. The reconciliation procedure requires identifying how measures would be paid for. So Democrats would have to identify a trillion dollars in tax increases to pay for canceling the debt even for those making enough to be able to repay their loans.

Making tuition free could be easier than canceling debt, Thompson said, amid the economic fallout of the pandemic. It could be seen as a way to help states, who will be struggling to fund colleges, as they face massive budget shortfalls, she said.

But on the campaign trail, Democrats aren’t ready to publicly support free four-year colleges. Hickenlooper does not mention Biden’s proposal and says only that he supports “making community college accessible to all regardless of ability to pay.”

Sara Gideon, whom RealClear Politics shows leading Republican Susan Collins in Maine by 6 percent, says only that she would “lower the cost of college and tackle the student loan debt crisis to make higher education affordable and accessible for everyone.” She does not mention Biden’s free college or debt cancellation proposals, and her campaign would not say if she supports them.

Democratic Montana governor Steve Bullock, who is leading Republican senator Steve Daines by 1.6 points in the RealClear Politics average, also would not say if he supports either of the proposals. He says about college loans only that he’d reduce the interest borrowers have to pay. He does not mention Biden’s plan to make two- and four-year public colleges free, saying only that he would increase Pell Grants and that “students should have access to free tuition for community college.”

Supporters of debt cancellation, like Brent J. Cohen, executive director of Generation Progress, a youth advocacy group associated with the left-of-center Center for American Progress, stress how the issue has risen in prominence in the last year or two. The group is part of 18 that are pushing Congress on social media and in some meetings this week to cancel student debt.

“We’ve seen how this conversation has accelerated from hardly being on people’s radar,” he said.

To Thompson, of TICAS, “it’s certainly not a sure thing” what a Democratic Senate would do. Still, she said the burden of the cost of tuition and the debt students have faced to pay for it has become such a “kitchen-table issue,” Congress will do something.

“Exactly what shape that will be is hard to tell,” she said. “If it’s debt cancellation, or lowering the cost of college, or sort of a mix between the two?”

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