Biden’s second try at student loan cancellation moves forward with debate over the plan’s details

President Joe Biden speaks on student loan debt forgiveness in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Oct. 4 in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s second attempt at student loan cancellation moved forward Tuesday with a first round of negotiations to help guide the administration to a new plan.

The Biden administration vowed to try again after the Supreme Court rejected an earlier plan in June. In opening remarks at Tuesday’s hearing, Under Secretary of Education James Kvaal said the debt crisis threatens to undercut the promise of higher education.

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“Student loan debt in this country has grown so large that it siphons off the benefits of college for many students,” Kvaal said in prepared remarks. “Some loans made to young adults stretch into retirement with no hope of being repaid. These debt burdens are shared by families and communities.”

Biden directed the Education Department to find another path to loan relief after conservatives on the high court ruled that he couldn’t cancel loans using a 2003 law called the HEROES Act.

The latest attempt will rest on a sweeping law known as the Higher Education Act, which gives the education secretary authority to waive student loans, although how far that power extends is the subject of legal debate.

The Education Department hopes to settle the dispute by adding federal rules that clarify when the secretary can waive student loans. To change those rules, however, the department is required to assemble a committee of outside negotiators to help hash out details.

The first day of negotiations, held virtually, lasted more than five hours but appeared to bring the department no closer to clarity. Much of the discussion centered on the shortcomings of existing student loan cancellation programs or problems caused by student loan interest.

Department officials repeatedly intervened to say those problems don’t fall under the scope of the current process.

The negotiators all come from outside the federal government and represent a range of viewpoints on student loans. The panel includes students and officials from a range of colleges, along with loan servicers, state officials and advocates including the NAACP.

It’s unclear who will be eligible for forgiveness under the new plan and how much relief they would get. Those details will be decided after the administration takes input from the negotiators, who meet in a series of sessions scheduled to continue into December.

Responding to suggestions from the panel, administration officials said they aren’t considering blanket cancellation.

“We are not looking at a broad-based debt cancellation where we are going to wipe off debt in its entirety. We are looking at individual ways that the secretary can exercise the authority to grant waivers,” said Tamy Abernathy, who leads a policy group in the department.

She later clarified that the department’s next proposal “could cancel some borrowers’ debt completely, but it could not cancel all borrowers debt completely.”

At the end of the process, negotiators will vote on a proposed rule drafted with input from their discussions. If they reach consensus on a proposal, the department will move forward with it. If they don’t, the agency will propose its own plan, which can be finalized after a public comment period.

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