'Windfall for the rich': Republicans warm up attacks as Biden weighs forgiving student debt

WASHINGTON — Even before President Joe Biden potentially rolls out a plan to cancel student loan debt, Republicans are sizing up attacks on an idea wildly popular with young people but less so among other groups of voters.

Biden gave his biggest signal yet he's moving toward canceling some amount of student debt Thursday – though less than the $50,000 coveted by some progressive activists – telling reporters he's "taking a hard look" at using his executive authority and "would have an answer on that in the coming weeks."

More: Biden taking 'hard look' at student loan debt forgiveness, but less than $50,000

Republicans in Congress and GOP candidates in this year's midterm elections responded by opposing the idea altogether.

Already, they have set out to make student debt cancelation a political wedge, describing it as a ploy to reward the liberal, college-going elite and punish those who couldn't afford college or had to save to pay off their debt.

"Forgiving student debt is a massive windfall to the rich, to the college educated, and most of all to the corrupt university administrators of America," said Ohio Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance, an author recently endorsed by former President Donald Trump, in a tweet. "No bailouts for a corrupt system. Republicans must fight this with every ounce of our energy and power."

President Joe Biden speaks as he meets with small business owners in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex in Washington, Thursday, April 28, 2022.

'Desperate measures'

Republican Senators introduced a bill Wednesday that would prevent Biden from canceling student loan debt without congressional approval. Although having virtually no chance to pass in the Democratic-led Senate, the bill charts the GOP position.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said canceling a significant portion of student debt would create "blatant unfairness to individuals who already paid off their student loans or never went to college" and would further hurt "our inflation-ridden economy."

Even Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, one of the few Republican senators occasionally open to Biden proposals, likened student debt cancelation to a "bribe."

"Desperate polls call for desperate measures: Dems consider forgiving trillions in student loans," Romney wrote in a tweet. "Other bribe suggestions: Forgive auto loans? Forgive credit card debt? Forgive mortgages? And put a wealth tax on the super-rich to pay for it all. What could possibly go wrong?"

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, speaks during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to examine the federal response to COVID-19 and new emerging variants, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022 on Capitol Hill in Washington.

White House: canceling student debt is about 'extra breathing room'

White House press secretary Jen Psaki countered those attacks, saying the president's view is that his role is to "provide relief to people who need it most to help people get some extra breathing room.”

She added: "That includes this consideration of getting people relief who have taken steps to further their education."

And yet some on the left who want Biden to cancel all student debt didn't fully embrace Biden's comments, arguing anything less than $50,000 wouldn't go far enough.

"President Biden, we agree that we shouldn’t cancel $50,000 in student loan debt," said Wisdom Cole, national director of the NAACP's Youth & College Division. "We should cancel all of it. $50,000 was just the bottom line."

Unusual step: Education department cancels student loan debt en masse for former beauty school students

Other Democrats were just happy to hear Biden talking about the issue at all.

“In an ideal world, of course, we can say all student debt" should be canceled, Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, told USA TODAY in an interview. "But I’m a guy that would like to see the glass half full versus half empty. Knowing that the president of the United States is looking at relieving student debt should be celebrated."

Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-CA), Chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, speaks during a news briefing at the 2022 House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference March 10, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. House Democrats gathered in Philadelphia for their annual retreat.

Countering Republicans' elitism argument, Ruiz said his caucus supports canceling student because Hispanic students disproportionately take out more loans.

Poll: Young people want student debt relief. But not all want it totally canceled

A Harvard University poll this week found that 85% of American 18-to-29-year-olds – a group that overwhelming backs Democrats, but has soured on Biden – favor some form of government action on student loan debt.

Also working in Biden's favor, the poll found only 38% favor total student debt cancelation.

Would canceling student debt energize the Democratic base?

Biden is facing renewed pressure to take action to cancel student loan debt after other cost-saving elements he proposed in his Build Back Better plan – such as subsidized child care, home caregiving and reducing prescription drug prices – stalled last year in Congress. Action on student debt could energize a Democratic base that has shown signs of being unenthused this election cycle.

On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to cancel at least $10,000 of each American’s student debt. Shortly after taking office, he said he believes the president may have the authority to cancel up to $50,000 in college debt but doesn't support doing so because it would favor those who attended exclusive private schools.

"It depends on whether or not you go to a public university or a private university,” Biden said in a February 2021 CNN town hall. “It depends on the idea that I say to a community, ‘I’m going to forgive the debt – tens of thousands of dollars of debt – for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn."

Midterms and beyond: Biden hasn’t forgiven student loan debt. Advocates warn it could hurt Dems in elections.

The Too Much Talent Band and local activists have a joyful protest of music and dancing outside of The White House to "Cancel Student Debt" on March 15, 2022 in Washington, DC.

The federal government since March 2020 has frozen the requirement that the nation's 41 million borrowers pay back their federal student loans. Earlier this month, Biden extended the moratorium until August 31 after it was going to expire in May.

The administration has canceled roughly $18.5 billion in student loan debt through existing federal programs since Biden took office. And about $2.1 billion of that sum benefitted roughly 132,000 people in the borrower defense program.

Biden has said he would sign into law a student debt forgiveness plan passed by Congress, but Democrats have lacked the votes in the evenly divided Senate.

That's turned all eyes to Biden to act unilaterally. Still, the Biden administration hasn't said definitively the president has the legal authority to cancel student debt through executive action.

"There's been no conclusion of any process yet internally," Psaki said.

Contributing: Candy Woodall and Chris Quintana

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison and Rebecca Morin @RebeccaMorin_

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Student loan forgiveness: How Republicans will fight Biden's plan