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'Tenuous' politics force Biden to abandon free community college proposal

The administration has been pressing Congress to reach a deal on the social spending package and the trillion-dollar infrastructure bill by the end of the month.

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden told Democrats this week that his proposal to provide two years of free community college would be abandoned in social safety net legislation, shelving an ambitious plan that dated back to the Obama administration.

"It was just a question of when they would finally get down to the hard decisions," said Douglas Harris, a senior fellow on education policy at the Brookings Institution. "And now they're there at that point."

The decision doesn't appear to be the product of Biden sitting down with polling and nixing the least popular provision.

But the move underscores the complicated politics of the Democratic Party as Biden tries to get both wings of his party on the same page to pass a piece of legislation that could be the totality of his legislative accomplishments.

"It's a sign of being in a tenuous political situation," Harris said Tuesday.

Biden and Democratic congressional leaders are working feverishly to reach a deal. Progressives have named provisions like expanding government-run health care programs as top priorities. And moderates want to shrink the overall price tag. Those competing interests appeared to have been the force that squeezed out free community college.

Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., conceded the college tuition proposal was getting nixed.

“It looks like that’s probably going to be out," she said. "You know that was not one of our five priorities, but I just kept pushing it every chance I could because I really believed in it."

The proposal originated in 2015 when then-President Barack Obama unveiled the America's College Promise proposal to make two years of community college free for students in an effort to advance growth in education and skills training in the United States. Biden revived the proposal when he announced his economic agenda and first lady Jill Biden, who has taught at community colleges, was out as recently as a month ago pitching the plan.

Biden told progressives Tuesday night that he is working to get the spending package below $2 trillion — down from the $3.5 trillion in its most recent iteration.

Community colleges have long been seen as a path for students with less financial means to access higher education.

But the schools have struggled. Community colleges’ enrollments dropped by 12 percent last year amid the coronavirus pandemic, with big declines among students of color, according to the College Board.

Democrats said the removal of the community college provision was a sign that the party is beginning to make difficult choices.

“We're going to have to make hard choices. Nobody's going to get everything they want,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said. “We're all still in the middle of the negotiations.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he “certainly would deeply regret removing that provision,” but Democrats are “all interested in reaching a compromise.”

He said Biden’s willingness to compromise and remove one of his own big priorities is a signal to Democrats that everyone will have to make sacrifices.

“His willingness to forgo it would be highly significant and it’s a mark of how important this package is,” he said.

Melissa Byrne, a Democratic strategist, said she is "cautiously optimistic" that the proposal will stay in the bill.

If the proposal stays in the bill, "it means that they're working on making a fundamental shift in education," said Byrne, who worked on Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign in 2016. Sanders' proposal wanted the federal government to make four years of college free to every student.

"If we get the free community college passed, that would be a huge shift and like finally having the predators on Wall Street that are not going to be profiting off folks' desires to get an education," Byrne said.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, isn't ready to give up.

“It’s been a priority for a lot of members of my committee for a long time,” she said. “Let’s see what the White House says.”