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Senate Blocks Elizabeth Warren's Student Loan Refinancing Proposal

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The Senate on Wednesday declined to approve a measure that would have enabled millions of Americans with expensive student loans to refinance into cheaper debt.

The 56-38 vote on the refinancing proposal, sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), failed to garner the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster. Warren’s proposal, which mostly targeted student loans owned or guaranteed by the Department of Education, sought to fund the reduction in borrowers’ student loan payments by increasing taxes on wealthy households.

“With this vote we show the American people who we work for in the United States Senate: Billionaires or students,” Warren said minutes before the vote.

Other than Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who voted against the measure on procedural grounds in order to preserve Democrats’ ability to reconsider it at a later date, only Republicans voted against it. They said the measure wouldn’t help reduce the skyrocketing cost of college and argued that it was not the best way to help former students manage their debt.

The proposal failed despite nearly widespread agreement among federal policymakers, financial regulators and financiers that Americans’ student debt burdens risk choking U.S. economic growth as student loan payments take ever bigger chunks of workers’ paychecks.

Unpaid student debt has doubled since 2007 to nearly $1.3 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve. Some 40 million Americans have student loan debt, according to the Education Department. The average borrower owes nearly $30,000.

Warren said Wednesday that outstanding student debt presents an “economic emergency that threatens the financial futures of Americans and the stability of our economy.”

Officials at the Federal Reserve, Treasury Department and executives at some of the nation’s biggest banks are among the financial experts who have publicly warned about the growing negative consequences of not taming Americans’ student debt bills, pointing to reduced home and automobile purchases, lower retirement savings, fewer new small businesses, and decreased future revenues for the U.S. banking system as households curtail their borrowing in favor of paying back the Education Department.

Financial firms including BlackRock, the world’s largest money manager, and regulators such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau have suggested that the U.S. government needs to strengthen its efforts to help borrowers repay their student debts.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the top Republican on the Senate education committee, said Wednesday it was more important to help current and future students rather than former students struggling with their debt.

Only three Republican senators -- Susan Collins of Maine, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska -- voted in favor of Warren’s proposal.

Many skeptical lawmakers and analysts derided the vote as a political stunt designed to highlight the chasm between Democrats and Republicans in an election year. Senate Democrats first proposed refinancing measures last year, but those bills never got a vote.

The White House waited until last week to signal its support for Warren’s bill, a sign the Obama administration was not seriously attempting to whip up support for the measure. The bill likely would have been doomed in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where the specter of any kind of tax increase is viewed with deep skepticism.

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