Democrat Stalls Confirmation of Top Biden Higher Education Pick

  • Kvaal won committee approval with bipartisan support
  • Stopped short of backing progressive debt relief demands

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President Joe Biden’s pick to oversee higher education policy is hitting a roadblock because of a Democrat is holding it up, multiple persons familiar with the nomination said.

James Kvaal, the former president of the nonprofit Institute of College Access and Success, was nominated for the undersecretary post at the Education Department in February after assisting with the transition team at the agency. The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee advanced his nomination with bipartisan support in April, along with that of deputy secretary pick Cindy Marten.

While the full Senate confirmed Marten to her post in May, Kvaal’s nomination stalled, even as the Education Department embarks on a new rulemaking for student loan regulations and weighs ending a moratorium on repayments of federal student loans.

Kvaal’s nomination is being held up by a Democratic lawmaker pressing for the Biden administration to move forward with broad student debt cancellation, multiple persons said.

The Senate majority leader can typically overcome a hold on a nomination—where a member says he or she will object to proceeding—by filing for cloture and getting the simple majority needed to cut off debate. A hold from a Democrat in the 50-50 split chamber makes it harder to move ahead on Kvaal because of the challenge of cobbling together a majority, and a general reluctance to override a member of the caucus.

Photographer: Paul Morigi/Getty Images for We The 45 Million
Advocates display a hand-painted sign on the Ellipse in front of The White House to call on President Joe Biden to sign an executive order to cancel student debt on June 15, 2021 in Washington, D.C.

A top issue in the presidential primary, student debt has continued to divide Democrats, despite the continuation of a pause on loan payments since last year in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Senate Democrats Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) have repeatedly called for Biden to use executive authority to cancel as much as $50,000 for student borrowers across the board. The administration has said it’s studying the president’s legal authority on debt cancellation. Biden has also called for Congress to pass more modest debt relief in response to the pandemic.

Warren and Schumer’s offices didn’t respond to requests for comment on the nomination. Kvaal also didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The Education Department looks forward to working with members of the Senate to advance his nomination, a spokeswoman for the agency said in an email. She didn’t comment on any hold specifically.

Addressing Debt ‘Crisis’

Kvaal, a former White House official in President Barack Obama’s administration, told senators in an April confirmation hearing that he would address a “crisis” in the federal student loan program, in particular for Black borrowers.

Biden Education Pick Pledges to Address Student Loan ‘Crisis’

He also called for debt relief for borrowers with high debt and low incomes, and improvements to an existing loan relief program for public service workers. He steered clear of taking a position on progressives’ demands for universal debt relief.

“As a general matter, that’s a good structure for thinking about how do we identify those loans that are weighing people down, and that they’re struggling with and unable to afford,” he told lawmakers.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anna Yukhananov at; Robin Meszoly at

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