Senate Republicans voted with Democrats on Wednesday to overturn a rule by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos that would restrict debt relief to students defrauded by for-profit colleges.
The Senate rejected the rule in a 53-42 vote, with 10 members of the GOP supporting the measure. The bill already passed in the House of Representatives in January. But the resolution would have to be signed by President Donald Trump in order to take effect.
The administration said last month that the White House would urge Trump to veto the resolution. The president told Republicans he was "neutral" about repealing the rule, according to Politico, but later said he backed the rule after DeVos called him directly. There are not enough Republican votes to override a veto.
Joining every Democrat in the chamber were Republican Sens. Martha McSally of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio and Todd Young of Indiana.
The resolution came after DeVos tried to rewrite the borrower defense rule, which provides debt relief for students defrauded by for-profit colleges. The Department of Education largely stopped processing 170,000 pending applications as her rewrite was challenged in court.
DeVos overruled career staff at the department and rejected a recommendation that all debt held by defrauded students should be forgiven entirely, according to documents obtained by NPR.
The rule was blocked by a judge who later held DeVos in contempt after the department tried to collect debt payments from defrauded students in defiance of a court order.
After DeVos' first attempt to provide only partial debt relief was blocked, she devised a new rule that provided full relief only to some students while creating a sliding scale that would provide partial relief between 25% and 75% of the total debt based on earnings. The policy came after the department also changed rules to make it harder to qualify for relief.
The Education Department disputed claims that the new rule would financially harm defrauded students.
"It's disappointing to see so many in Congress fooled by misinformation from the left and the fake news narrative about our efforts to protect students from fraud," spokeswoman Angela Morabito told CNN. "Students, including veterans, who are defrauded by their school and suffer financial harm as a result deserve relief, and our rule provides them relief."
But Democrats argued that DeVos' rewrite "gutted" the debt relief program and made it virtually impossible for people to qualify.
"The burden of proof for these students is so absurdly unrealistic," Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev., who sponsored the bill in the House, told The New York Times.
"We don't believe your life should be ruined because some school lied to you about the education they were promising, the loans you were taking out. We believe that you deserve a second chance in life," bill sponsor Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said in a news conference on Wednesday.
Durbin said the individuals hurt most by the rule would be veterans, who are often targeted by for-profit colleges. He added that he would seek to overturn a veto if the president does not sign the bill.
"These are men and women that we praise around the clock — around the calendar — and here was our chance to stand with them. And a number of Republicans wanted to do that," Durbin said. "We found 10. I think we can find 10 more."
The measure will test Trump's commitment to veterans after he promised last year that he would provide relief to disabled vets so that "our wounded warriors are not saddled with mountains of student debt."
Democrats pointed out that Trump himself was forced to pay millions to settle fraud claims against his ill-fated Trump University.
"He had to pay $25 million for ripping off the kids," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said at a news conference. "But many of these institutions have done even worse. Students cheated by the for-profit schools deserve the same support that those who went to Trump University have gotten."
Durbin went even further in criticizing the for-profit schools that ripped off students.
"These for-profit colleges are the coronavirus of higher education," he said.