A White House spokesperson on Tuesday would not say whether the Biden administration has an alternative plan to cancel student debt as borrowers and campaigners across the U.S. braced for—and prepared to mobilize in response to—a Supreme Court ruling on the Education Department’s pending relief program.
Asked during a briefing if the White House has any contingency plans in place for a decision that blocks relief, Principal Deputy Press Secretary Olivia Dalton told reporters that the administration is “very confident” in its legal case and is “not going to get ahead of what the Supreme Court’s outcome is here.”
“While we won’t get ahead of the decision, we know that the stakes couldn’t be higher for student borrowers right now,” Dalton added. “And certainly, we’re watching along with the millions of people who desperately need that student debt relief to see what the court will do here.”
The conservative-dominated Supreme Court is set to rule this week on a pair of cases challenging the legality of the Biden administration’s debt relief program, which aims to use emergency authority under the 2003 HEROES Act to cancel up to $20,000 in student loan debt for eligible borrowers.
For weeks, progressive lawmakers and debt relief campaigners have been pressuring the Biden administration to prepare for an unfavorable Supreme Court decision given the potentially disastrous impact it would have on millions of borrowers, but the White House has thus far declined to publicly outline a backup plan.
Advocates are particularly alarmed by a possible scenario in which the Supreme Court blocks student debt cancellation and student loan repayments and interest accumulation resume weeks later, a double whammy for vulnerable borrowers who have been promised relief.
After being frozen during the coronavirus pandemic, student loan repayments are expected to restart in October—a date cemented by a debt ceiling agreement reached last month by the Biden White House and House Republican leaders.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who has been pushing the Biden administration to ready an alternative relief plan, tweeted Tuesday that “we must continue the pause on student loan payments until we make good on the promise to forgive it.”
During a webinar earlier this week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said that “we expect this administration to explore every option available” to help borrowers if the Supreme Court strikes down the relief program.
“Let me be very clear: President Biden has the legal authority to cancel student loan debt,” Warren continued. “If the Supreme Court follows the law instead of playing politics, they will make clear that the Republican attempt to stop student loan debt relief is baseless, and that that relief will go forward immediately.”
One of the Supreme Court’s right-wing justices, Samuel Alito, is facing calls to recuse himself from the student debt cases given his ties to a billionaire hedge fund titan with financial connections to the plaintiffs.
“The Higher Education Act should be used immediately and rapidly to deliver on this essential commitment.”
Organizers with the Debt Collective and other groups are specifically urging the White House to use executive powers under the Higher Education Act of 1965 to enact broad-based student debt cancellation if the Supreme Court sides with right-wing challengers against the administration’s pending program, which cites a more narrow authority.
In 2021, the Debt Collective crafted an executive order that would fully cancel the roughly $1.8 trillion in federal student loan debt currently held by more than 40 million borrowers in the U.S.
“Debt cancellation is totally legal,” Debt Collective co-founder Astra Taylor toldBloomberg earlier this week. “It happens all the time and the president has other legal authorities. The Higher Education Act should be used immediately and rapidly to deliver on this essential commitment.”
Bloomberg reported Monday that “the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which claims 1 million members, has a mobilization campaign ready to bombard the White House with emails and phone calls urging Biden pursue an alternative path if the court overturns his student loan forgiveness program.”
“The NAACP and allied groups have made preparations for a rally within two hours of a negative decision,” Bloomberg added.
Wisdom Cole, head of the NAACP’s youth and college division, told the outlet that “failure isn’t an option.”
After a rally outside the White House last week, Cole said that “regardless of what the Supreme Court decides, we demand that the Biden administration continue to explore all legal pathways necessary to make cancellation a reality.”
“We will accept nothing less than a debt free 2023,” Cole added.