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As GOP gains grounds, lawmakers press Biden for action on student debt and drug prices

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Biden and congressional leaders should act quickly when they return to work next week, because Democrats think even small changes in the law can help them fight back against a likely GOP victory.

Lawmakers are pressuring President Biden on matters ranging from student debt forgiveness to decreasing the cost of prescription medications, arguing that such measures will help to stabilize households shook by increasing inflation and economic uncertainty, which Republicans blame on Mr. Biden. Some proposals have widespread support within the party, but others have polarized progressives and moderates, with each side arguing for what will energize or alienate voters in November.

The White House has launched a number of executive measures on matters such as energy, some incremental and some more serious, while the party debates where to place its bets.

After President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion healthcare, education, and climate-change agenda froze in the 50-50 Senate late last year, many Democrats claimed they were eager to demonstrate Americans they could get more things done in November.

“Pick a couple of them and just deliver them,” noted progressive Rep. Ro Khanna (D., Calif.), who believes that the lack of progress on liberal causes is discouraging young activists. “That means getting done the student-debt relief—that is so obvious, that is such a no-brainer.”

Mr. Biden has favored legislation that would forgive $10,000 in student debt for all borrowers, but he has acknowledged doubts about acting unilaterally without the approval of Congress.

Following criticism from prominent Democrats such as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), White House sources said the president is now contemplating whether to use executive action to cancel some student debt on a big scale. According to those familiar with the situation, Mr. Biden’s aides are split on the issue, and the president has yet to make a judgment.

Many households would benefit from such a move, but critics argue that it would be unfair to borrowers who have already paid down their loans, and that relief would be biased toward middle- and upper-income families.

The Biden administration has extended the moratorium on federal student loan payments through August 31, and the Education Department has taken steps to expand the eligibility for existing debt relief programs. Since the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, payments and interest accrual have been frozen for debtors with federal student loans.

Many Democrats are urging Congress and the White House to take more steps. Ms. Warren cautioned in a New York Times opinion piece that unless Democrats move on their program, which includes student debt relief, cheaper prescription prices, and reintroducing a slimmed-down healthcare and climate bill, among other things, Democrats will suffer significant midterm losses.

While many progressives advocate for executive action, moderate Democrats argue that the focus should be on bipartisan legislation that can be signed into law, such as a package to help the US compete with China.

“My hope is that we will really be thoughtful between now and the [next] Congress and put forward bills that have a path in the Senate,” noted Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D., Va.), who is running for re-election. She also mentioned bipartisan legislation addressing supply-chain issues and another aimed at giving police units more resources for community policing.

More House seats are now going to Republicans, according to Dave Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. He said even the districts that Joe Biden won by double digits in 2020 could be open to the right-leaning party.

In an interview, he stated that any fresh Democratic action is “not likely to work unless voters are feeling better about the economy come October and November.”

Several Democratic strategists agreed that advancing fresh policy initiatives would not be enough to reverse the trend of public opinion, but they noted that it would help limit losses.

Democrats say they want to get the bipartisan China competition package signed into law once Congress returns to work. They are planning a final try in the coming weeks to resurrect portions of the healthcare, education, and environment package, which included provisions aimed at lowering the cost of some prescription medicines. Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), who killed a previous bill in the Senate that was opposed by all Republicans, has stated he would back a smaller package focused on climate and medication pricing.

Mr. Schumer’s and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) representatives did not reply to calls for comment.

Leaders of the center-left New Democrat Coalition asked the president to work with Congress on China legislation and a small social spending and climate bill, said Rep. Suzan DelBene (D., Wash.), the group’s head. The Congressional Progressive Caucus advised the president to adopt executive orders if legislation stagnated in a separate meeting, according to CPC Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D., Wash.).

Republicans argue that Democrats are out of touch with voters and that extra spending will raise inflation. They also claim that many of the Democrats’ suggested policies could hurt them in the polls. “The message to the president would be quit all the left-wing stuff, move to the center, and work on things you can agree on,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) if Republicans retake Congress.

In terms of inflation, White House officials expect Mr. Biden to take additional executive action, possibly at the petrol pump, if prices continue to rise. So far, the administration has released oil from government stockpiles and permitted the sale of gasoline with a high ethanol content during the summer months. Lease sales for oil and gas drilling on federal land were also announced by the Biden administration. According to AAA, gas prices averaged around $4.12 per gallon on Thursday, down from $4.25 a month ago but still significantly above $2.88 a year ago.

According to sources familiar with the situation, White House officials have contemplated calling for a suspension of the federal gas tax and delivering prepaid gas cards to the public. Neither idea has obtained the president’s approval. Mr. Biden’s aides privately raised doubts about repealing the gas tax, fearing that the savings would be insignificant and would not be passed on to consumers. Some Democratic members have also voiced concern about the proposal.

During his upcoming travel, President Biden will discuss the benefits of his $1 trillion infrastructure program, which he signed into law at the end of last year, as well as decreased unemployment and initiatives to reduce family costs.

Democrats, according to some strategists, need more success to motivate voters to vote.

“We can’t run on a highway bill, that cannot be our whole thing,” Karthik Ganapathy, a former campaign staffer for independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, said.

Image Credit: Bryan Olin Dozier/Zuma Press

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