Biden declared the pandemic 'over.' It could jeopardize student debt relief and more cash for Covid testing.
- Biden declared the pandemic "over" during a 60 Minutes interview, potentially jeopardizing two of his top goals.
- Republicans and Democrats are at a months-long impasse over covid testing funds.
Financial relief for millions of Americans relies on the existence of COVID-19 as a national emergency — and President Joe Biden just declared it "over." It could threaten student debt relief and future coronavirus-related health funding.
In an interview with "60 Minutes" that aired Sunday on CBS News, Biden all but pronounced that the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic was behind Americans over two years after the initial shutdown of the economy.
"We still have a problem with covid," he said. "We're still doing a lotta work on it, but the pandemic is over."
The remarks suggesting that the emergency has ended may jeopardize twin goals of the Biden administration on student debt relief and coronavirus aid.
The White House has struggled to secure more funding for COVID-19 testing and vaccines due to staunch Republican opposition. Its efforts to obtain at least $22 billion in extra coronavirus aid has been stonewalled for over six months, and it's not likely to be included in a short-term funding bill to be passed by the end of September meant to keep the government open until December.
"It was already looking quite unlikely that Congress was going to provide funding for vaccinations, testing, and treatments, and it's now even less likely," Larry Levitt, executive vice president for health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told Insider. "It's hard to go to Congress and say you need emergency funding, when you're suggesting there's no longer an emergency."
In addition, the Biden administration is poised to renew a 90-day public health emergency declaration in mid-October at least once more. That designation has allowed roughly 16 million low-income Americans to gain health insurance through Medicaid over the past two years. But Republicans are likely to increase pressure on the White House to lift it, arguing it's time for the US to return to normal.
Some Republicans are seizing on the opportunity to castigate the White House. Part of Biden's legal rationale for providing $10,000 in student debt relief per borrower rests on the lingering pandemic. "Emergency powers, vaccine mandates, and COVID funding requests should be voided TODAY!" Rep. Jim Banks of Ohio wrote on Twitter on Monday.
—Jim Banks (@RepJimBanks) September 19, 2022
"Joe Biden last night was the Republicans' best messenger," a senior Senate GOP aide told Insider on condition of anonymity to speak candidly. "He admitted what we've said for a while that COVID's over."
"The president's comments last night kind of solidified what a lot of Senate Republicans believe, which is that there is no COVID emergency and there's no need for billions more in spending," the Republican aide said, adding that it may also strengthen the case for a future lawsuit to block the Biden administration from providing student debt relief.
Top Senate Republicans started voicing even more skepticism about the Biden administration's request for additional covid cash. "If it's over, then I wouldn't suspect they need any more money," Sen. John Cornyn of Texas told CNN's Manu Raju.
—Manu Raju (@mkraju) September 19, 2022
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
The Biden administration has said it has the authority to carry out its one-time $20,000 loan forgiveness policy under the HEROES Act of 2003, which gives the Education Secretary the ability to waive or modify student-loan balances in connection with a national emergency, like COVID-19.
That legal framework involved rescinding a memo from former President Donald Trump's Education Department which concluded that the authority did not exist to cancel student debt broadly, with his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos declaring the move as "100% illegal."
While Republican lawmakers argued Biden's action was an overreach of that authority, the president saying the pandemic is over was all some of them needed to back up their claims that this broad debt cancellation is illegal.
But some supporters of debt relief don't see it quite that way. Persis Yu, managing counsel at the Student Borrower Protection Center, told Insider that authority for debt relief under the HEROES Act likely still stands because Americans are still financially recovering from the pandemic.
"The HEROES Act gives the Administration expansive authority to alleviate the hardship that federal student loan recipients may suffer as a result of national emergencies," Yu said. "The economic effects of the pandemic are still felt by millions of borrowers—many of whom lost their jobs or may be experiencing the effects of long COVID."
There may be other legal options for the administration even outside that pandemic emergency framework. Yu added that authority to enact blanket relief also exists under the Higher Education Act, which gives the Education Secretary the ability to compromise or waive balances. It's also a provision the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School noted to Sen. Elizabeth Warren in defense of blanket debt cancellation.
The Education Department did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment, but Bharat Ramamurti, the deputy director of the National Economic Council, previously told reporters that the "legal authority gives the Secretary the ability to make sure that the pandemic and the emergency does not cause a net financial harm to those folks."
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