Biden administration extends student loan relief talks after mounting pressure

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The Education Department has agreed to extend its student loan relief talks after mounting pressure in recent weeks, according to an agency official and an email sent to federal negotiators.

The Education Department confirmed the news after USA TODAY reported it on Wednesday.

The decision is not unheard of in Washington. But reconvening was not the original plan. Word of another round of talks follows weeks of advocates, progressive lawmakers and members of the department’s own loan relief committee urging the Education Department to return to the table after negotiations ended bitterly in December.

James Kvaal, the undersecretary of education, said in a statement following USA TODAY's report that the department looks forward to the conversations, which are set for mid-February.

“The Biden-Harris Administration will never stop working to deliver student debt relief for borrowers,” he said.

Many members of the federal panel came away from the last round of discussions in December unsatisfied. They urged Biden administration officials – many of whom have been scarred by the Supreme Court’s rebuke of their first relief plan – to think bigger about bringing more forgiveness to larger swaths of Americans, despite the legal and political hurdles they could face.

Jessica Ranucci, an attorney at the New York Legal Assistance Group who serves on the committee, said she's eager to get back to the table.

"Borrowers facing financial hardship need debt relief just to have the opportunity to get by," she said in a statement to USA TODAY.

Specifically, advocates are hoping to delve deeper into the types of hardship the federal government should consider when canceling borrowers’ student loan debt. In early December, the Education Department proposed fully relieving debt for borrowers who’ve been paying back their loans for more than two decades. They were also considering forgiveness up to $20,000 for some borrowers whose payments have ballooned due to interest.

Critics said the scope of those ideas was too narrow.

“This isn’t broad enough,” said Sherrie Gammage, a negotiator representing borrowers who attended four-year programs.

“If this is the primary broad-based relief, I think it's going to be very disappointing,” said Sarah Butts, another committee member.

The Education Department and the White House have said the Biden administration is committed to providing relief as quickly as possible to the largest number of Americans who need it. The federal government has forgiven $132 billion in student loan debt for more than 3.6 million Americans since Biden took office, the White House says.

"I won’t back down from using every tool at our disposal to get student loan borrowers the relief they need to reach their dreams," Biden said last month.

Despite the administration's accomplishments, progressives in Washington are wary. As Biden's first term comes to a close, his reelection chances are far from certain. The staunchest student loan relief advocates in Congress, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., want action sooner rather than later.

In a statement, she praised the decision to add another round to the negotiations.

"This is a significant opportunity to cancel as much debt as possible for Americans getting crushed by student loans," she said.

The fourth session will be held virtually on Feb. 22 and 23 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern. Members of the public are invited to join.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Student loan relief talks extended by Biden administration