Live Updates: Democrats Begin to Lay Groundwork for Unilateral Infrastructure Plan

Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Even as the White House and a bipartisan group of senators reach for a compromise infrastructure plan, top Senate Democrats have begun a parallel effort to press forward with their own ambitious public works package that would include tax increases on corporations and wealthy individuals, as well as programs under the rubric of “human infrastructure” to combat climate change and support caregiving.

Republicans uniformly oppose such measures, so advancing them would require using the fast-track budget process known as reconciliation, which shields fiscal measures from filibusters, allowing them to pass with a simple majority vote.

Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, is set to meet on Wednesday with the 11 Democrats on the Budget Committee to discuss starting the reconciliation process, according to a senior Democratic aide who disclosed the plans on the condition of anonymity.

And committee staff members have already begun work on the legislation needed to trigger the process.

“There are members with very justified views, whatever you can do bipartisan, we should try,” Mr. Schumer said at a news conference on Tuesday, adding that he hoped to advance both a bipartisan infrastructure proposal and the budget blueprint in July. “But alongside that is the view that that won’t be enough.”

Members of the bipartisan group, five Republicans and five Democrats, have briefed their colleagues on the blueprint for their emerging proposal, which is expected to total about $1.2 trillion over eight years — roughly half in new spending — for roads, bridges and other physical infrastructure. But the plan has drawn fire from liberal Democrats, who see it as inadequate and misguided, and some have openly urged that the talks be abandoned in favor of legislation that better reflects President Biden’s priorities.

Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, a member of House Democratic leadership, said of Republicans, “If they choose the obstruction pathway, then we’re prepared to do what is necessary” to pass Mr. Biden’s plan.

Steve Ricchetti, a senior adviser to Mr. Biden, privately told House Democrats on Tuesday that the White House would give the bipartisan talks at least another week before assessing the likelihood of a deal.

Using reconciliation would require nearly every House Democrat and all 50 senators who caucus with Democrats to remain united, and some liberal lawmakers worry that any bipartisan deal could sap away necessary votes.

Several Republicans, including Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate minority leader, have said they are open to a bipartisan deal and are putting the onus on Democrats to accept the kind of concessions that would be necessary to seal one — the very outcome that many progressives dread.

“Put me down as listening and hopeful,” Mr. McConnell said.

Democrats have little room to maneuver, with razor-thin margins in both chambers. On Tuesday, Mr. Schumer postponed votes to advance and confirm the director of the Office of Personnel Management, citing the absence of two Democrats dealing with family illness.

The Capital Pride parade in Washington on Saturday.
Credit…Michael Reynolds/EPA, via Shutterstock

A year after the Supreme Court ruled that protections in the Civil Rights Act against discrimination in the workplace extended to gay and transgender people, the Education Department said on Wednesday that it has interpreted the ruling to mean that those protections also extend to students.

The department said that discrimination against gay and transgender students is prohibited under Title IX, a 1972 law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in federally funded schools. The law has become a political cudgel in the culture wars over sex and education.

“We just want to double down on our expectations,” Miguel A. Cardona, the education secretary, said in an interview Tuesday. “Students cannot be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity.”

The Education Department’s interpretation of Title IX is the opposite of the stance taken by the Trump administration, which maintained that transgender students were not entitled to protections and threatened last year to withhold federal aid from schools that allowed transgender athletes to participate in scholastic sports. During the last weeks of the Trump administration, the Education Department issued guidance saying that the Supreme Court ruling did not offer transgender students protections.

Since Inauguration Day, the Biden administration has conducted a sweeping effort to rescind, revise or revoke a number of Trump-era policies that rolled back transgender rights. The Department of Housing and Urban Affairs, the Justice Department and the Department of Health and Human Services have all issued guidance affirming the rights of transgender Americans.

But the Education Department’s announcement does not change the process of reporting or investigating individual cases of discrimination, Mr. Cardona said. And it is unclear how far the new interpretation of the ruling will go to address legislative efforts to restrict rights based on gender identity. That includes dozens of bills introduced by Republicans across the country to bar transgender girls from playing sports.

“The reality is each case has to be investigated individually,” Mr. Cardona said. Schools, he added, should “not wait for complaints to come to address these issues.”

Vice President Kamala Harris met with Democratic members of the Texas Legislature on Wednesday.
Credit…Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday met with Democratic members of the Texas Legislature who successfully staved off a voter restriction bill in their state last month, calling the group “American patriots” who had fought to preserve a fundamental democratic right.

“What we are seeing are examples of an attempt to marginalize and take from people, a right that has already been given. We are not asking for the bestowal of a right. We are talking about the preservation,” Ms. Harris told the group in remarks delivered in the Roosevelt Room. “That is the right of citizenship. And it’s that fundamental.”

It was the first high-profile meeting on the issue that Ms. Harris has hosted since President Biden named her the leader of the administration’s broad efforts to protect voting rights, an issue that Mr. Biden feels is central to his legacy. In a call with reporters before the meeting, three senior administration officials said the vice president was personally invested in the issue, and directly sees herself as a beneficiary of laws, including the Voting Rights Act, that have protected the right to vote.

The officials did not provide a concrete answer when asked how Ms. Harris’s convening of Texas Democrats could help the White House stake out a stronger position should Republicans in the state remain united to pass an election bill, as they have vowed to do this summer.

But the White House has repeatedly signaled that Ms. Harris will be using the “bully pulpit” of the vice presidency to bring attention to bills introduced in Republican-led statehouses across the country that are designed to eat away at voting protections. During a visit to Greenville, S.C., on Monday, Ms. Harris hosted a listening session with local activists to discuss what they are doing to get more people registered to vote, a key tactic that administration officials say will help counteract the restrictive laws at the local level.

“When we look at these attempts to infringe on people’s access to voting, we know that it is going to impact people,” Ms. Harris said in the Roosevelt Room. “Americans with disabilities, seniors, students, people of every walk of life.”

Two weeks ago, the Democrats in the Texas Legislature staged a dramatic, late-night walkout to force the failure of a sweeping Republican overhaul of state election laws. With two expansive pieces of voting-rights legislation facing bleak odds in the Senate, and Texas Republicans vowing to pass an elections bill anyway, the group has used the newfound attention to call for federal voting protections.

Yesterday, as part of a series of meetings designed to rally support for an expansive piece of federal legislation on voting, Senate Democrats invited the legislators to lunch to push for the bill. But a key invitee did not attend: Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who has disparaged the bill, called the For the People Act, as too partisan, skipped the meeting.

In her own meeting, Ms. Harris took issue with the criticism that protecting voting rights was a partisan endeavor.

“We’re not telling people how to vote,” Ms. Harris said. “And, frankly, this is not a Democratic or a Republican issue; this is an American issue. This is an American issue.”




Yellen Says Key to Economic Recovery Is in ‘Smart Policies’

Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen testified to Congress on Wednesday about economic recovery in the wake of the coronavirus. Yellen promoted Biden’s policies on paid family leave and education as the best way to fix long-existing disparities.

When I took office back in January, the first and most urgent problem confronting our economy was obviously the pandemic, helping people make it to the other side of the crisis and ensuring they were met there by a robust recovery. Thanks to this Congress and its passage of the American Rescue Plan, I believe we’re well on our way towards that goal. But we have to be clear-eyed about something: The pandemic was not our only economic problem. The budget, which includes both the American Jobs and Families Plan, will repair the fractured foundations of our economy. It does so through a series of smart policies, including child care and paid leave so more parents can join the workforce, a mass modernization and greening of America’s infrastructure to spur commerce and reduce emissions, and investment to make housing and education available to all. And the list goes on. We need to make these investments at some point, and now is fiscally the most strategic time to make them.

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Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen testified to Congress on Wednesday about economic recovery in the wake of the coronavirus. Yellen promoted Biden’s policies on paid family leave and education as the best way to fix long-existing disparities.CreditCredit…Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen urged lawmakers to pass President Biden’s $4 trillion jobs and infrastructure plans on Wednesday, warning that the United States must invest to combat “destructive forces” that are holding back millions of Americans from prosperity.

Testifying before the Senate Finance Committee, Ms. Yellen made the case that it is a critical time to deploy “ambitious fiscal policy” to reshape the economy in the aftermath of the pandemic. She pointed to income and racial inequality, declining labor force participation and climate change as festering economic problems that need to be addressed.

“We need to make these investments at some point, and now is fiscally the most strategic time to make them,” Ms. Yellen said.

The hearing, which was focused on Mr. Biden’s budget proposal, comes as the White House is negotiating with lawmakers in Congress over how to move forward with infrastructure legislation. Mr. Biden has expressed a willingness to narrow the scope of his plan to win support from some Republicans, but Democrats are also considering moving ahead with legislation on their own if talks break down.

Republican senators expressed deep skepticism about Mr. Biden’s economic agenda on Wednesday, questioning Ms. Yellen about international negotiations over a global minimum tax and plans to ramp up funding for the Internal Revenue Service so that it can shrink the “tax gap.” The Treasury Department estimates that $7 trillion in taxes owed to the government will go uncollected in the next decade if the agency is not modernized and given greater enforcement powers.

“President Biden feels that it’s crucial that we have a tax system that’s fair and one where we enforce tax laws so that individuals and corporations pay what they owe,” Ms. Yellen said.

Ms. Yellen said that Mr. Biden’s plans were fiscally responsible and that the investments in the economy would be paid for with an overhaul of the tax code. Mr. Biden’s tax proposals would raise taxes on the wealthy and on big companies, but he has promised not to increase taxes on anyone making less than $400,000 a year.

The Treasury secretary told lawmakers that the government needs to make these investments in child care and infrastructure because the private sector is not doing enough on its own to train workers or reduce carbon emissions.

“We need to remedy this lack of investment,” Ms. Yellen said.

Republicans have been resistant to most of Mr. Biden’s proposals, arguing that such robust spending threatens to overheat an economy at a time when deficits are growing and inflation is on the rise.

Ms. Yellen argued on Wednesday that because interest rates are so low, this is the best time to spend.

“We expect the cost of federal debt payments will remain well below historical levels through the coming decade,” she said. “We have a window to invest in ourselves.”

Asked about inflation, Ms. Yellen said that she is not taking the threat lightly.

“We’re monitoring inflation very carefully and do take it very seriously,” Ms. Yellen said. “No one wants to return to the bad high inflation day of the ’70s.”

Managing inflation falls to the Federal Reserve, not to the Treasury Department, but Republicans have suggested the Biden administration’s spending plans are contributing to a recent spike in prices. Ms. Yellen’s views on inflation and interest rates are watched closely, however, because she previously served as Fed chair.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia at a news conference after his summit with President Biden in Geneva on Wednesday.
Credit…Pool photo by Denis Balibouse

President Biden and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia emerged from their first in-person summit Wednesday and offered broad claims of good will, but it was clear that on issues ranging from cyberattacks to human rights, the two countries remain profoundly divided.

“There has been no hostility,” Mr. Putin said as he met with reporters after the summit in Geneva. “On the contrary, our meeting took place in a constructive spirit.”

For his part, Mr. Biden said, “The tone of the entire meeting was good, positive.”

But the tensions remained evident.

Mr. Putin denied that Russia has played a role in a spate of increasingly bold cyberattacks against U.S. institutions and said it was the United States that is the biggest offender.

The Russian leader also appeared to give short shrift to what Mr. Biden had said was a key objective of the talks: to establish some “guardrails” that would make some kinds of attacks on critical infrastructure off limits in peacetime.

Mr. Biden said that he had pressed the Russian president on a variety of issues — and that he would not stop doing so.

“I made it clear to President Putin that we’ll continue to raise issues of fundamental human rights,” he said.

“I did what I came to do,” Mr. Biden said.

He expressed optimism that Mr. Putin would not seek to escalate the tensions between the two nations.

“The last thing he wants now is a cold war,” Mr. Biden said, noting that “we have significant cyber-capabilities, and he knows it.”

The high-stakes diplomatic engagement came at the end of a whirlwind weeklong European tour for Mr. Biden in which he sought to rebuild the traditional alliances that often bolstered the United States’ position during the Cold War.

Mr. Biden has argued that the world is at an “inflection point,” with an existential battle underway between democracy and autocracy. But with Mr. Putin at the vanguard of the autocrats, the American leader faced criticism from some quarters for even taking part in the summit.

Sensitive to the dangers of appearing to embrace the Russian leader, the White House insisted that both men hold separate news conferences after the three-hour meeting. Mr. Putin spoke first.

There were signs of easing tensions.

Mr. Putin said the two nations had agreed that their ambassadors, who both returned to their home countries amid the tensions, should return to their posts in the near future. He said they would also begin “consultations” on cyber-related issues.

“We believe the sphere of cybersecurity is extremely important for the world in general — including for the United States, and for Russia to the same degree,” he said.

Mr. Putin, who flew in from Sochi, Russia, arrived first for the summit at an 18th-century Swiss villa perched above Lake Geneva. A short time later, Mr. Biden’s motorcade pulled up as Russian, American and Swiss flags waved in the breeze under a blue sky with the United States entourage.

The two leaders were greeted by President Guy Parmelin of Switzerland, who welcomed them to Geneva, “the city of peace.”

“I wish you both presidents a fruitful dialogue in the interest of your two countries and the world,” he said.

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

The two men touched on a range of difficult topics, from military threats to human rights concerns. Some were longstanding, others of newer vintage.

During the Cold War, the prospect of nuclear annihilation led to historic treaties and a framework that kept the world from blowing itself up. At this meeting, for the first time, cyberweapons — with their own huge potential to wreak havoc — were at the center of the agenda.

But Mr. Putin’s comments to the media suggested the two leaders did not find much common ground.

In addition to his denials that Russia had played a destabilizing role in cyberspace, he also took a hard line on human rights in Russia.

He said Mr. Biden had raised the issue, but struck the same defiant tone on the matter in his news conference as he has in the past. The United States, Mr. Putin said, supports opposition groups in Russia to weaken the country, since it sees Russia as an adversary.

“If Russia is the enemy, then what organizations will America support in Russia?” Mr. Putin asked. “I think that it’s not those who strengthen the Russian Federation, but those that contain it — which is the publicly announced goal of the United States.”

A patient with the coronavirus in Houston last year. Nearly 600,000 people have died of the virus in the United States.
Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

The lawyer who led the inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks has quietly laid a foundation for a nonpartisan commission to investigate the coronavirus pandemic, with financial backing from four foundations and a paid staff that has already interviewed more than 200 public health experts, business leaders, elected officials, victims and their families.

The work, which has attracted scant public notice, grew out of a telephone call in October from Eric Schmidt, the philanthropist and former chief executive of Google, to Philip D. Zelikow, who was the executive director of the commission that investigated Sept. 11. Mr. Schmidt urged Mr. Zelikow to put together a proposal to examine the pandemic, which has caused nearly 600,000 deaths in the United States alone.

Now, with the nation beginning to put the crisis in the rearview mirror, Washington is taking up the idea of a Covid-19 commission. Bipartisan bills have been introduced in both the House and the Senate, and have the backing of three former homeland security secretaries — two Republicans and a Democrat — as well as health groups and victims and their families.

Unlike the rancorous debate that doomed the proposal for a panel to investigate the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, discussion of a Covid-19 commission has not produced partisan discord — at least, not yet. Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and a lead sponsor of the Senate bill, noted that its work would cover both the Trump and Biden administrations.

But a commission with subpoena power could be a hard sell to Republicans wary that such a panel would become an instrument to investigate former President Donald J. Trump.

In the meantime, the Covid Commission Planning Group directed by Mr. Zelikow with financial support from foundations, including one affiliated with Mr. Schmidt and another with Charles Koch, the conservative philanthropist, is forging ahead on a separate track that might, at some point, merge with a congressionally appointed panel.

In interviews on Tuesday, both Mr. Zelikow and Mr. Schmidt said that while they would like cooperation from Congress and the White House, their effort could proceed without it, though it might be handicapped without subpoena power and access to documents. Mr. Zelikow said there was internal debate in his group about which route was preferable.

A Maricopa County official delivered an eviction order in Phoenix last year.
Credit…John Moore/Getty Images

The United States averted the most dire predictions about what the pandemic would do to the housing market. An eviction wave never materialized. The share of people behind on mortgages, after falling steadily for months, recently hit its prepandemic level.

But a comprehensive report on housing conditions over the past year makes clear that while one crisis is passing, another is growing much worse.

Like the broader economy, the housing market is split on divergent tracks, according to the annual State of the Nation’s Housing Report released on Wednesday by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. While one group of households is rushing to buy homes with savings built during the pandemic, another is being locked out of ownership as prices march upward — and those who bore the brunt of pandemic job losses remain saddled with debt and in danger of losing their homes.

For the past year, lower-income tenants have relied heavily on government support to pay their monthly bills. These measures have helped — about a third of renters used unemployment or stimulus payments to pay rent at some point during the pandemic — but the majority of renters still had to borrow or draw on savings to cover bills.

As the U.S. job market recovers and businesses and schools move toward normal operation, political leaders are debating how fast to pull back emergency supports. That includes eviction moratoriums that, despite ample loopholes and patchy enforcement, were instrumental in keeping tenants in their homes.

At the peak last year, the majority of states and several large cities including New York, Los Angeles and Seattle had some sort of heightened eviction protection in place, though the degree of protection varied widely. Many of those safeguards have expired over the past few months, and the federal eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September is set to lapse at the end of the month.

Tenants’ rights groups have begun pushing the Biden administration for a one- to two-month extension of the freeze to account for widespread delays in the processing and distribution of federal aid.

“We’ve avoided some of the worst outcomes so far, but the crisis is not over,” said Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “If the Biden administration allows the federal eviction moratorium to expire before states and localities can distribute aid to households in need, millions of households would be at immediate risk of housing instability and, in worst case, homelessness.”

A 5,000-square-foot mural seen on the facade of a building in Galveston, Texas, on the spot where Gordon Granger, a Union general, brought news of emancipation to the state’s enslaved Black people in 1865.
Credit…Montinique Monroe for The New York Times

The Senate on Tuesday passed a bill to recognize Juneteenth, which commemorates the emancipation of slaves in the United States, as a federal holiday.

Many states have recognized Juneteenth for decades, but only some observe it as an official holiday. The holiday is already celebrated in 47 states and the District of Columbia. In the wake of protests against police brutality last year, dozens of companies moved to give employees the day off for Juneteenth, and the push for federal recognition of the day as a paid holiday gained new momentum.

The day, which is also known as Emancipation Day, recalls June 19, 1865, when Gordon Granger, a Union general, arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform enslaved African-Americans that the Civil War had ended and that they had been freed under the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. The proclamation ended slavery only in states that had seceded; an end to slavery in the entire country waited until December 1865, when the 13th Amendment was adopted into the Constitution.

Texas was the first state to observe Juneteenth as an official holiday, starting in 1980.

The latest effort to commemorate the day as a federal holiday came through a bill which the Senate passed unanimously on Tuesday. It heads to the House next. If it becomes law, it would be the 11th national holiday recognized annually by the federal government.

Louise Burke, left, and Kate Hartson have started All Seasons Press, a new conservative publishing house.
Credit…via All Season Press

Jared Kushner has a book deal, joining former White House officials like Kellyanne Conway and Mike Pence who are also writing books.

But others from the Trump administration have had a tougher time with mainstream publishers. Those companies have struggled to find a balance between promoting a range of voices — including conservative authors who can sell a lot of copies — and heeding their employees, readers and authors who consider it morally unacceptable to publish them.

Now there is a new publishing company, All Seasons Press, that wants those conservative authors and is pitching itself as an alternative to mainstream houses.

“The company is open to welcoming those authors who are being attacked, bullied, banned from social media, and, in some cases, outright rejected by politically correct publishers,” it said in a news release on Tuesday.

All Seasons is staking out territory that some mainstream publishers are wary to venture into, by courting former Trump officials who staunchly supported the president through the bitter end of his administration, including those who echoed the president’s false claims that the election was rigged. The company plans to release a book in the fall by Mark Meadows, Mr. Trump’s former chief of staff, and another by Peter Navarro, Mr. Trump’s former trade adviser. Its founding was reported earlier by The Wall Street Journal.

All Seasons is led by Kate Hartson and Louise Burke, both of whom ran conservative imprints at major publishers.

Ms. Burke, the publisher of the new company, was previously the publisher of Threshold Editions at Simon & Schuster, where the authors she worked with included Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and former President Donald J. Trump. Ms. Hartson, the editor in chief of All Seasons, spent 10 years at Center Street, a Hachette imprint that published Donald Trump Jr., Senator Rand Paul, Newt Gingrich and Jeanine Pirro. Hachette dismissed Ms. Hartson earlier this year.

Whether a Trump memoir is coming remains a hot topic in publishing. The former president poses a significant challenge to many book executives, who have said they would be reluctant to work with him because of the potential for a revolt by their employees and the accuracy concerns his words would raise.

Mr. Trump said in a statement last week that he had turned down two book deals, but offered no proof. Ms. Hartson and Ms. Burke said that they “would be honored to publish him.”

Senators took a bus together for a dinner with Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday.
Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Vice President Kamala Harris threw a private dinner party at the Naval Observatory on Tuesday night for the 16 Democratic and eight Republican women serving as U.S. senators, a gathering that came at a tense moment in negotiations on a number of the Biden administration’s biggest ambitions.

The bipartisan dinner was the first social event Ms. Harris had hosted since coming into office five months ago — her move to the official vice-presidential residence was delayed for three months because of renovations — and the outreach to her former Senate colleagues came as Ms. Harris has taken the lead on the administration’s push to pass voting rights legislation.

All 24 women in the Senate were invited, according to an administration official. All but three — Cindy Hyde-Smith, Republican of Mississippi; Cynthia Lummis, Republican of Wyoming; and Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona — attended.

Photos posted online after the event by Senator Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan, showed about 20 of the senators seated together.

Ms. Stabenow posted a photo that showed the vice president giving a toast to the group, flanked by Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, and Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington. She also shared a photo of cheese puffs that she said Ms. Harris, known for her love of cooking, made from scratch for the group.

Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, was scheduled to appear on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News directly after the dinner to give viewers an “inside look at the event,” Mr. Hannity tweeted.

With just six weeks left before Congress’s August recess, the Biden agenda appears to be stalled while Republicans try to derail the president’s economic plans and delay any Democratic changes past the point where they can be implemented before the 2022 elections.

There are intraparty fights to deal with, as well. Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, remains opposed to the voting rights legislation that Ms. Harris is championing for the administration and to ending the Senate filibuster, which could be used to derail Biden priorities.

Two Democrats invited to the dinner, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, are part of a bipartisan group of senators that is negotiating an alternative to the president’s infrastructure plan that does not address key Democratic priorities, like climate change. The plan does not have the support of a majority of Republicans, and progressives like Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, have already come out against it.

Ms. Harris has not been a key player in infrastructure negotiations and was not known for her close relationships with colleagues on Capitol Hill during her four years in the Senate, a chunk of which she spent running for president.

But as vice president — and the tiebreaking vote in the evenly divided Senate — she has taken on some of the administration’s most difficult goals. Besides the voting rights push, Ms. Harris has also been tasked with stemming the flow of migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border by addressing the root causes in countries like Guatemala that push migrants north.

The for-profit chain that operated ITT Technical Institute campuses like this one in Vista, Calif., collapsed in 2016.
Credit…Sandy Huffaker for The New York Times

The Education Department wiped out more than $500 million in student loans on Wednesday, in its first step toward unclogging a badly backed-up relief program for students who were scammed by their schools.

For the first time in more than four years, the department approved new grounds for claims through the so-called borrower defense program, canceling debts for 18,000 applicants who attended ITT Technical Institute, a for-profit chain that abruptly collapsed in 2016. The program allows students who were defrauded by their schools to have their federal student loans forgiven.

The new approvals involved applications from students who attended ITT between 2005 and 2016 and said they had been misled about their earning chances and students who attended between January 2007 and October 2014 and said they had been misled about their ability to transfer credits to other institutions.

“Our action today will give thousands of borrowers a fresh start and the relief they deserve after ITT repeatedly lied to them,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said.

Eileen Connor, the legal director of the Project on Predatory Student Lending, a group that has won court victories against the department over its handling of borrower defense claims, praised Wednesday’s announcement but said Mr. Cardona needed to go further.

“The department needs to address the more than 700,000 borrowers with over $3 billion in fraudulent debt from ITT,” Ms. Connor said. “We cannot ask these borrowers to wait another day or pay another dollar toward federal student loans that never should have been made in the first place.”

The borrower defense program had languished for much of the past four years. In January 2017, at the tail end of the Obama administration, the department granted claims from some students who attended ITT’s California campuses — a move that many hopeful applicants saw as a sign of relief to come.

But the relief program essentially stopped functioning for much of President Donald J. Trump’s administration. Betsy DeVos, his education secretary, denounced the system as a “free money” giveaway and repeatedly chipped away at the protections it offered. Then, in her final year in office, she rejected more than 130,000 borrowers’ claims after reviews lasting just minutes. Tens of thousands more claims languished for years.

Mr. Cardona has promised to reverse that tide. “Many of these borrowers have waited a long time for relief, and we need to work swiftly to render decisions for those whose claims are still pending,” he said.

Nearly 108,000 applicants who say they were defrauded by their schools are still awaiting decisions. The department has not yet announced whether it will take on the thorny question of revisiting Ms. DeVos’s denials.

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