WASHINGTON — Senator Elizabeth Warren is slowing the confirmation of a top higher education official as she intensifies pressure on President Biden to do more to reform the federal student loan system.
The maneuver suggests an increased willingness to prod the president more aggressively from the left, which she did with particular energy in her first term during the Obama administration. Her current objection, however, comes at a time when Biden can ill afford further dissent in the Democratic ranks while facing near uniform Republican opposition on many of his major initiatives.
Warren has also ramped up her calls for Biden to cancel large amounts of student loan debt and extend a moratorium on student loan repayments put in place last year because of the pandemic. While she frequently praises the president and has stacked his administration with her allies, Warren’s patience appears to be wearing thin on one of her signature issues.
“It’s not just me. It’s tens of millions of people across this country that want to see student loan debt canceled. They raise their voices every day and I hope the White House hears them,” Warren said during a brief interview on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. “This is truly persuading one man it’s time to do this.”
Her latest step involves holding up the confirmation of James Kvaal, a veteran of the Obama administration, to be undersecretary of education, according to a person familiar with the situation, as she presses for higher education reforms that would change the way the federal government administers student loans. It’s an issue she has long raised in public, calling for more oversight of for-profit colleges and publicly grilling the companies that service student loans, among other issues.
In the interview, Warren declined to comment specifically on the Kvaal matter, pointing instead to a brief statement released by her office.
“Our office has had constructive conversations with the department [of Education] about a range of necessary reforms and those conversations continue,” Kristen Orthman, her spokeswoman, said.
Senators in both parties frequently use holds — or the threat of them — to extract promises from the administration, and Warren was not shy about lambasting nominees of President Donald Trump or even President Barack Obama in the past.
But this time, instead of writing op-eds or delivering fiery floor speeches, she has spent more than two months running a behind-the-scenes play involving Kvaal’s nomination to get what she wants on student loan reform.
“She can definitely be loud when she wants to be loud, and this is not loud,” said Jeff Hauser, the founder and director of the Revolving Door Project, a left-leaning group that monitors Washington’s corporate ties. “This seems like a measured response to what I imagine to be the concerns people are having broadly about the Department of Education.”
Still, the hold is the starkest example yet of Warren using her power in an evenly divided Senate to pressure the Biden administration, and it represents a contrast with her efforts so far to use a conciliatory voice to nudge the White House to the left. It also puts Warren at odds with other Democrats who want to see the nomination of Kvaal, a former education and White House official during the Obama administration, advance quickly.
Senator Patty Murray, chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which voted 19-3 to approve Kvaal’s confirmation in April, stands by him, said Madeleine Russak, a committee aide.
“Senator Murray believes that Mr. Kvaal’s record shows he is clearly qualified to serve as undersecretary of education and has no doubt that when confirmed, he will fight to build a more equitable higher education system for all students — including by addressing our student debt crisis and improving accountability and quality oversight,” Russak said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education would not comment in detail on any discussions with Warren.
“We’ve been working with Senate offices and are encouraged by the conversations and developments around James Kvaal’s nomination,” the spokesperson said. “We share the same goals around making the Federal Student Aid office more consumer friendly and an advocate for student borrowers, which is why we’ve taken multiple actions to achieve this goal, including providing nearly $3 billion in targeted loan relief and bringing on Richard Cordray as chief operating officer” of federal student aid.
Cordray is a close ally of Warren’s, having served as the first director of one of her signature accomplishments, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Another, Julie Margetta Morgan, was named by Biden as a senior adviser in the Education Department’s undersecretary’s office. Both of those appointments speak to the influence Warren has over key posts in the Biden administration.
The news of Warren’s effort, first reported by Bloomberg and The Washington Post, comes as she continues her advocacy around student debt, and as Biden faces more grumbling from progressives in general over climate change, child care, and other key agenda items they fear are getting left behind. Warren made canceling up to $50,000 of student loan debt for nearly all borrowers a key plank in her presidential campaign platform and has continued to press for it with Biden in office. She and other progressive lawmakers, including Representative Ayanna Pressley of Boston, have argued that the nearly 43 million Americans with student loans are being crushed by the debt, which disproportionately hurts people of color.
Biden says he favors legislation forgiving $10,000 in student debt per borrower, but Warren has pressed him to do more and through executive action. In a virtual town hall in February, she told constituents to write to Biden to urge him to forgive up to $50,000. Biden did not include any student loan forgiveness in his 2022 budget released in May and has asked the Education Department to review his authority to wipe out student debt through executive action. That review, begun in April, has not been completed.
Federal student loan payments have been suspended since March 2020 because of the pandemic, and Biden has extended that until Sept. 30. On Wednesday, Warren and Pressley led a group of more than 50 lawmakers who sent a letter to Biden urging him to again extend the freeze on student loan payments until March 31.
“We urge you to act quickly to extend the current pause on payments and interest so that borrowers are not penalized and student debt payments do not drag down the pace of our economic recovery,” the lawmakers wrote.
If the Sept. 30 deadline does not change, it will likely become a key flashpoint between the Biden administration and student debt advocates like Warren well into the summer.
“She’s just doing what advocates are doing, which is trying to hold the administration accountable to Biden’s campaign promises,” said Natalia Abrams, executive director of Student Debt Crisis, a nonprofit group that advocates for reforming student debt and higher education loan policies.
“At this point, all he has done is extend the payment pause and nothing has been done for student loan borrowers,” Abrams added. “Nothing has been done to reform the system.”