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Fact check: Biden falsely claims he got student debt forgiveness passed by Congress

By Daniel Dale, CNN

President Joe Biden falsely claimed last week that he got his student debt forgiveness initiative passed by Congress.

During an on-camera discussion conducted by progressive organization NowThis News and published online on Sunday, Biden told young activists that they “probably are aware, I just signed a law” that is being challenged by Republicans.

Biden then summarized the plan he announced in August, which offers cancellation of up to $20,000 in federal student loans for Pell Grant recipients and $10,000 for other borrowers (all subject to an income limit of less than $125,000 per person). Biden then said, “It’s passed. I got it passed by a vote or two, and it’s in effect.”

Facts First: Biden’s claims are incorrect. Biden created his student debt forgiveness initiative through executive action, not through legislation. So he did not sign a law and didn’t get the initiative passed by any number of votes.

Republicans opposed to the Biden initiative, including those who are challenging the initiative in court, have called it unlawful precisely because it wasn’t passed by Congress. In other words, the distinction between a law and an executive action is a highly pertinent fact in the ongoing battles over the legality and legitimacy of the policy. And in 2020 and 2021, Biden discussed that distinction himself while musing about various proposals for student debt forgiveness.

Asked for comment on Monday, a White House official said Biden was referring to the Inflation Reduction Act, a law narrowly passed by the Senate in August; the official said that law created “room for other crucial programs” by reducing the federal budget deficit. But Biden certainly did not make it clear in these comments that he was talking about anything other than the student debt initiative.

Biden’s remarks were highlighted by numerous conservatives on Twitter on Sunday night, including by a Republican National Committee account.

Policy by executive action

To conduct student debt forgiveness without going through Congress, the Biden administration relied on the authority its lawyers argue the federal education secretary has under a 2003 law, the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students (HEROES) Act.

The law, signed by President George W. Bush amid the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, allows the education secretary to waive or modify loan requirements for people who are serving in the military during a war or national emergency, who live or work in an area declared a disaster area in connection with a national emergency, or who have suffered direct economic hardship as a direct result of a war or national emergency.

The Biden administration argues that the Covid-19 pandemic constitutes such a national emergency and that its debt forgiveness initiative is meant to rectify the hardship the pandemic has inflicted upon student borrowers. Six Republican attorneys general challenging the initiative have argued in a legal filing that the 2003 law was never meant to authorize “anything like the Administration’s across-the-board debt cancellation” and that Biden’s initiative is not genuinely linked to the pandemic.

Last week, a federal appeals court temporarily barred the Biden administration from cancelling student loans under the initiative while the court considers a Republican request for an injunction. The administration said it could still accept and review forgiveness applications in the meantime.

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