If the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the abrupt halt to President Joe Biden’s student loan debt plan and effectively takes back $10,000 intended to go to borrowers, the political impact could be swift, immediate and warranted, analysts and politicians say.

For Republicans heading into a presidential cycle in which they’re the party out of power, they may have to defend why the federal judges they’ve installed — and their Supreme Court majority — stepped in to stop sizable relief for an already struggling middle class.

And for Democrats, it may be back to the drawing board again — this time, to drum up ideas on how to deliver a long-promised lifeline to voters.

Pennsylvania’s political arena is no stranger to the yearslong battle over America’s hefty backlog of student loan debt. Look no further than last month when both of its statewide victors — John Fetterman in the U.S. Senate and Josh Shapiro for the governor’s seat, both Democrats — named the issue as a priority.

It’d be natural to assume that Republicans would be on the defensive if the Supreme Court were to decide early next year that Biden cannot unilaterally forgive student loans. Sam DeMarco III, who chairs of the Republican Committee of Allegheny County, is worried about that prospect but said the GOP can mitigate it if they present a solid case of their own.

DeMarco — who’s responsible for leading the county Republicans in their quest for state, federal and local offices — said he’s sounded the alarm to party leaders about the economic pressures facing college-goers and student loan borrowers.

“If Republicans don’t do anything, then they run the risk of facing some consequences,” said DeMarco, who is an at-large member of Allegheny County Council and calls the forgiveness effort a power grab in the first place. He hypothesized that Democrats are trying to buy votes and not trying to address the root cause of the problem: the rising cost of higher education.

Instead of only criticizing Biden, DeMarco said Republicans should come up with their own policies to tackle the problem. He added that they could look at subsidizing interest rates, the ability for borrowers to refinance and an extension to the loans.

When Biden’s White House first announced the relief at the end of the summer, Pennsylvania Democrats took a victory lap, saying it was promises made, promises delivered and a base-energizing win to galvanize an entire generation of voters.

The much-anticipated relief checked in at $10,000 in federal student loan debt for those whose income is below $125,000 a year, or households earning less than $250,000. Borrowers would get an additional $10,000 canceled if they received federal Pell Grants.

Bethany Hallam, an outspoken progressive Democrat and an at-large Allegheny County councilwoman, said $10,000 was never enough, but it was a good start. She had long warned that Democrats not acting on the issue could impact their chances in last month’s midterm elections.

Hallam said if the court case vindicates Biden’s plan, there’s no reason that Democrats can’t cancel all student loan debt and continue working toward free secondary education.

Democrats too often win hard-fought elections but don’t follow through on some of their bolder promises, Hallam said.

“We keep getting the fear instilled in us that if we don’t work hard for Democratic candidates to win elections, that all these bad things are going to happen,” she said.

“We show up and vote and, still, life is terrifying,” she added, noting that many people have to choose between paying their rent or paying down their student loan debt.

Since Democrats announced their $10,000 relief plan, Pennsylvania Republicans have framed them as overzealous and irresponsible spenders at a time when America’s economic future is uncertain. They’ve warned that it’ll be worse for young people when the bill comes due, and have aimed to court voters who feel it’s not fair to cancel debt when so many have already paid theirs off.

DeMarco said canceling debt does nothing for future borrowers, adding that voters should blame Biden for trying to give people something that wasn’t his to give.

“All they’re trying to do is throw out taxpayer dollars and force people who didn’t go to college to pay for those who did,” DeMarco said of the Democratic Party.

Hallam countered that because of the excessive burden of student debt, an entire generation is unable to fully participate in the economy. Students are told at 18 that they need to go to college to succeed in life — but the job market after graduation doesn’t give them a high enough wage to pay down their debt, she said.

“The entire system was predatory from the jump,” she said.

According to an analysis by The Associated Press, more than 26 million people had already applied for relief as of early this month. About 16 million had been approved before a federal judge in Texas struck down the plan. Federal student loan debt totals to $1.6 trillion, accumulated by more than 45 million borrowers.

Biden has blamed Republicans for stalling the plan, accusing them of “throwing up roadblocks in order to prevent middle-class families from getting the student debt relief they need.”

In the meantime, the White House has extended the pause on student loan repayment until 60 days after the litigation is resolved.

“We’re extending the payment pause because it would be deeply unfair to ask borrowers to pay a debt that they wouldn’t have to pay, were it not for the baseless lawsuits brought by Republican officials and special interests,” U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in late November.

Julian is the Western Pennsylvania politics and government bureau chief at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike.

Julian Routh

Julian is the Western Pennsylvania politics and government bureau chief at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike.