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Biden stance underscores Democrats' split on student loan forgiveness

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senate Majority Leader Chuck

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Feb. 8. Credit: Corey Sipkin

This argument isn't just academic

President Joe Biden says $10,000 is as far as he can go on canceling debt from college students' loans. Democratic progressives and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Wednesday stuck by their calls for up to $50,000 in loan forgiveness per student and said, "We will keep fighting."

The dispute is the biggest to erupt within the party since it took control of the White House and both chambers of Congress. "Canceling $50,000 in federal student loan debt will help close the racial wealth gap, benefit the 40% of borrowers who do not have a college degree, and help stimulate the economy. It’s time to act. We will keep fighting," said a joint statement from Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. They contend Biden can make that happen by executive order, rather than asking Congress.

An audience member at a CNN town hall Tuesday night told Biden that student debt was "crushing" her friends and that "we need at least a $50,000 minimum" for loan forgiveness. Biden replied: "I will not make that happen." The president suggested Tuesday that there may be legal limits on how much he could forgive. He also questioned the logic of giving a break to graduates of prestigious private schools — "people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn" — rather than "use that money to provide for early education for young children who are coming from disadvantaged circumstances." (See a transcript of the town hall.)

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday said a legal review that won't begin until Merrick Garland is confirmed as attorney general will determine whether Biden has the authority to write off even $10,000 through executive action. She said Biden would be "eager to sign" a bill from Congress for that amount. For relief beyond $10,000, she added, there should be considerations such as income.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Bronx/Queens) rejected Biden's argument against bigger debt forgiveness for graduates of higher-end private schools. "Who cares what school someone went to? Entire generations of working-class kids were encouraged to go into more debt under the guise of elitism. This is wrong," Ocasio-Cortez tweeted Wednesday. "Nowhere does it say we must trade-off early childhood education for student loan forgiveness. We can have both."

Biden, at the Milwaukee town hall Tuesday, reiterated his support for free community college and free four-year public college for students from families earning $125,000 or less — proposals he touted on the campaign trail.

He also has extended the coronavirus pandemic-triggered pause on federal student loan payments and interest accrual through September, a temporary reprieve from the repayment crunch.

Trump: Rush and me and me

Former President Donald Trump ended almost a month of TV silence Wednesday by phoning in to Fox News to pay tribute to right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh, who died at age 70 after a battle with lung cancer. From there, Trump slid seamlessly into talking about himself.

"Rush thought we won, and so do I," Trump exclaimed, resuming his false claims that the election was stolen from him. "I think we won substantially. And Rush thought we won. … A lot of other people feel that way, but Rush felt that way strongly."

And then more on the cry that he was robbed: "I don’t think that could have happened to a Democrat. You would’ve had riots going all over the place if that happened to a Democrat."

So the U.S. Capitol riot wasn't enough?

Back to his relationship with Limbaugh: "I have a very beautiful weakness. I tend to like people who like me."

Janison: McConnell as survivor

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has settled in as Biden's most important Republican adversary, writes Newsday's Dan Janison. Trump's insults and threats at McConnell from the sidelines at Mar-a-Lago only reinforces the Kentucky senator's new place in the power game.

Given that role, McConnell's now-famous public shuffle on Trump's second impeachment trial is easy to understand even for those on both sides who don't forgive it. By voting to acquit Trump of inciting insurrection, McConnell stood with the majority of his caucus, many of whom clearly had reason to fear backlash at home if they voted otherwise. But by also condemning Trump's conduct, McConnell said out loud what some of those members might have wished to say. Politics can be the art of cutting things both ways, and McConnell keeps a tight grip on partisan power.

In losing and then lying about it, Trump probably had cost Republicans the Senate majority. McConnell had no incentive to keep pretending respect for Trump, who sounds willing to be as cynically divisive within the GOP as he was across the nation during his term.

A more relevant question ahead is how Schumer will manage to push the Biden agenda with a razor-thin majority. McConnell has no cause to downplay the degree to which his clout, in tandem with his members', survives in Trump's absence.

Biden and Bibi break ice

Four weeks after his inauguration, Biden had his first call as president with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The readouts from both sides were positive, though there are potential fissures ahead, such as Biden's interest in reviving the Iran nuclear deal.

The two leaders were described as speaking for about an hour and having a "very warm and friendly" call, touching on their personal ties and saying they’d work together to "continue strengthening the steadfast alliance" between the two countries, according to an Israeli statement.

The White House readout said Biden stressed support "for the recent normalization of relations between Israel and countries in the Arab and Muslim world" that advanced under Trump.

Biden open to reparations study

Biden’s White House is giving its support to studying reparations for Black Americans, boosting Democratic lawmakers who are renewing efforts to create a commission on the issue amid the stark racial disparities highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic, The Associated Press reported.

A House panel heard testimony Wednesday on legislation that would create a commission to examine the history of slavery in the U.S., as well as the discriminatory government policies that affected former slaves and their descendants.

The commission would recommend ways to educate the American public of its findings and suggest appropriate remedies, including financial payments from the government to compensate descendants of slaves for years of unpaid labor by their ancestors.

Psaki said Biden won't wait for a study to address other problems arising from racism. "He understands we don’t need a study to take action right now on systemic racism, so he wants to take actions within his own government in the meantime," she said.

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest regional pandemic developments on Long Island and beyond by Newsday's reporting staff, written by Bart Jones. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • CNN's fact-checkers found that Biden made at least four false statistical claims during the network's town hall event Tuesday night. They were about the COVID-19 vaccinations, minimum wage, undocumented immigrants and China's economy.
  • A group of at least 20 Democratic senators sent Biden a letter Wednesday urging him to use his executive powers to expand voting-rights protections and step up enforcement of campaign-finance violations, The Washington Post reported.
  • Roughly a third of America’s military personnel are declining to receive COVID-19 vaccines when they are offered, Pentagon officials said Wednesday. Commanders are scrambling to knock down internet rumors and find the right pitch that will persuade troops to get the shots.
  • Ex-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns are among the leading candidates for U.S. ambassador to China, Bloomberg News reported.
  • Biden hosted labor leaders in an Oval Office meeting Wednesday to discuss his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief and stimulus package, which is pending in Congress, and upcoming proposals to invest in the nation’s infrastructure.
  • A demolition crew's controlled implosion turned the former Trump Plaza casino in Atlantic City to dust on Wednesday. It was the city's first of three Trump hotel-casinos, all of which went bankrupt. (See images and video of the implosion from around Atlantic City.)

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