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Tougher work requirements for federal aid programs pose obstacle in debt limit talks

The Republican push for stricter rules around receiving benefits faces strong pushback from Democratic lawmakers, but President Biden hasn't fully closed the door.
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WASHINGTON — As House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Joe Biden seek an agreement to raise the debt ceiling, Republican demands to impose tougher work requirements for federal aid programs have emerged as an obstacle to finding consensus.

The debt ceiling bill House Republicans passed last month, which was negotiated between GOP members and approved along party lines, would expand work requirements for some federal aid programs, including Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, a program that provides grocery aid. The proposal has drawn a backlash from many Democrats who oppose such provisions.

But while Biden has said cuts to federal aid that could throw people into poverty are off the table, he has also signaled that he may be open to some limited concessions on work requirements to reach a spending deal.

Biden told reporters Sunday that he “voted for tougher aid programs” when he was a senator. “That’s in the law now,” he said. “But for Medicaid, it’s a different story.”

McCarthy, R-Calif., who has said including work requirements is a red line in the talks, declined to discuss details after Tuesday’s meeting.

“I’m not gonna negotiate with all of you. We know where we need to get to,” he said. The Republican-backed proposal had required intraparty negotiations, and details were a point of contention.

But tougher work requirements won't fly with many Democrats.

It's “a nonstarter for me,” Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., said in an interview on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports,” arguing that the cuts are harmful and ineffective. “Work requirements don’t make people work more. What it does is deprive of folks who need the help. It’s just cruel.”

The House GOP bill would require states to implement work requirements for some people on Medicaid, the health insurance program for low-income people. It would also require able-bodied adults up to age 55 to work a minimum of 20 hours per week or satisfy other criteria to get SNAP benefits for more than three months every three years.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said it wasn’t possible to get an agreement on such a contentious issue in a short time frame; Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a letter Monday that the U.S. could breach the debt ceiling as soon as June 1.

"How are you going to work that out? How are you going to work an issue that complicated, that affects that many lives, in seven to 10 days?" Murphy said. "It just feels impossible."

White House spokesman Michael Kikukawa noted in a statement that Biden has supported work requirements for federal aid programs in the past.

“The work requirements on cash assistance that the president voted for in the 1990s are still the law today,” Kikukawa said. “As the President said, Medicaid is a different story, and the President has been clear that he will not accept proposals that take away people’s health coverage. The president has also been clear that he will not accept policies that push Americans into poverty.” 

Kikukawa added, “He will evaluate whatever proposals Republicans bring to the table based on those principles.”

Biden struck a tougher line against the push Monday, when he appeared to rule out changes to SNAP, tweeting that Republicans were threatening food aid for seniors.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., threw cold water on tougher work requirements, saying they’re already law for most federal programs.

“I know this is raw meat for the Republicans to talk about the ‘welfare queens’ and the like, but the reality is when we’re talking about children getting food stamps to survive on, work requirements don’t make any sense at all,” Durbin said Tuesday. “To make this the center point of our negotiation to crater the American economy is ridiculous.”

Other Democrats have pushed back against the idea of work requirements, including Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania.

“SNAP already has work requirements. I didn’t come here to take food away from hungry kids, and that’s exactly what this proposal would do; a proposal that would make Scrooge blush,” Fetterman said on Twitter, referring to the House GOP plan. “I’ve never met a SNAP recipient who aspires to stay on SNAP for life."

House Rules Committee Chair Tom Cole, R-Okla., wouldn't say Tuesday whether stricter work requirements are a red line for him.

"I don't know. I think they're very important. I think our position is eminently reasonable," Cole said.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he supports the House-passed bill and its work requirements.

"I think it's reasonable," he said Tuesday. "And apparently the president upset some of the progressive base. ... So I think that's part of the negotiation."

CORRECTION (May 17, 2023, 5:45 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated Ro Khanna’s congressional position. He is a member of the House, not a senator.