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Warren stalls Biden’s higher education pick over student loan policies

·3 min read

Sen. Elizabeth Warren is blocking a swift confirmation for President Joe Biden’s pick to be the No. 3 official at the Education Department as she presses the administration over its management of the $1.6 trillion portfolio of federal student loans.

The Massachusetts Democrat has placed a hold on the nomination of James Kvaal to be undersecretary of education, a source familiar with the process confirmed to POLITICO on Tuesday.

Warren’s roadblock is the latest escalation of pressure on the Biden administration from progressives who want to see more aggressive and quicker action on student loan debt.

Warren and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have been publicly lobbying Biden for months to use executive action to wipe out $50,000 of student loan debt per borrower. Biden has been dismissive of that idea, though the White House has said it’s still reviewing its options.

But Warren’s hold on the Kvaal nomination is not over the $50,000 student debt cancellation proposal, according to the source. Instead, Warren is seeking concessions on longstanding issues that she’s raised about how the Education Department runs the student loan program.

Warren’s staff is negotiating with the Biden administration about a “range of necessary reforms in higher education including the administration of the student loan program,” the source said.

Earlier this year, Warren called on the Education Department to fire two of the largest companies it hires to collect student loans — Navient and the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency — over what she said were repeated failures in how they treat borrowers.

Warren and other congressional Democrats have also pressed the Biden administration to detail how it plans to restart the monthly payments of millions of student loan borrowers that have been frozen during the pandemic.

Kvaal was a top domestic policy adviser in the Obama White House and most recently has led The Institute for College Access and Success, an advocacy group. The Senate HELP Committee in April advanced his nomination with overwhelming bipartisan support on a 19-3 vote.

An Education Department spokesperson said the agency had been working with Senate offices and was “encouraged by the conversations and developments around James Kvaal’s nomination.”

“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,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

Bloomberg reported earlier that an unnamed Democratic senator had placed a hold on Kvaal’s nomination.

The nomination delay comes as the Education Department has started plotting an ambitious higher education agenda that Kvaal would lead if confirmed. The Biden administration has said it wants to rewrite rules governing some existing student loan relief programs as well as restore Obama-era policies that targeted for-profit colleges.

During his nomination hearing, Kvaal said the Biden administration’s priorities for student debt relief would be temporary loan forgiveness as pandemic response, fixing the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and forgiving the debts of borrowers “with low incomes and high debts.”

Kvaal would also bring to the Education Department key experience in higher education policy that is missing from the agency’s top ranks. Both Miguel Cardona, the secretary, and Cindy Marten, the deputy secretary, have focused primarily on K-12 schools.

Warren has long been critical of the Education Department’s oversight of the student loan program under both the Trump and Obama administrations.

But in the Biden administration, she has already won several key personnel victories at the Education Department.

Cordray, the former director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and a Warren ally, is now overseeing the department’s Office of Federal Student Aid. Julie Margetta Morgan, a former senior education counsel to Warren, is also a top adviser at the agency, serving as the acting under secretary of education.