Republicans Want Joe Biden To Bend On ‘Work Requirements’

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WASHINGTON — Having agreed among themselves on a bill to increase “work requirements” in federal safety net programs, House Republicans now hope they can make President Joe Biden go along.

The House approved the work rules Wednesday as part of a broader Republican plan to cut federal spending and allow the government to continue borrowing money in order to cover its costs. Passing the bill through the House amounted to a symbolic victory — if House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) wants to make it a law, he’ll need cooperation from Biden and Senate Democrats.

The work requirements, which would cut benefits to unemployed childless adults, contribute only 2.5% to the bill’s overall $4.8 trillion in savings — but they have been a major part of Republican talking points.

Asked to give the basics of the legislation Wednesday night on Fox News, McCarthy mentioned the bill’s overall savings, its rescission of unspent pandemic funds, and its crackdown on the unemployed.

“We put in work requirements to help people get jobs to move forward,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy and his colleagues have frequently noted that as a senator, Biden voted for work requirements as part of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act — the 1996 law that all but abolished cash welfare in the United States.

Speaker of the House Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif) speaks to the media at the Capitol on April 26 after the House passed a bill raising the nation's debt ceiling.
Speaker of the House Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif) speaks to the media at the Capitol on April 26 after the House passed a bill raising the nation's debt ceiling.

Tasos Katopodis via Getty Images

“He probably has forgotten this, but he’s said historically that, you know, people should work,” Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), chair of the influential Republican Study Committee, told HuffPost this week. “It’s one of the areas that Joe Biden’s gonna have a hard time pushing back on.”

Another senior Republican from Oklahoma, House Rules Committee Chair Tom Cole, said Biden still has a record of bipartisan cooperation, even if he may have adopted a more progressive economic agenda in recent years.

“They don’t have control of the House, so you’re going to have to sit and talk to the speaker, the other party,” Cole said. “It’s not a position that’s unusual for him.”

In recent months, Biden has done some things, such as backing a reversal of the Washington, D.C., criminal code and approving a big oil drilling project, that caused some commentators to speculate the president was pivoting toward the center. And in 2021, Biden agreed with Republicans that extra unemployment benefits ought to be phased out.

But Biden and the White House have been relentlessly critical of the Republican debt ceiling proposals — and the entire idea of demanding spending cuts in exchange for an increase in the federal government’s borrowing limit. If Congress doesn’t allow the Treasury Department to borrow more money, sometime this summer the government could miss payments to bondholders, potentially destabilizing the financial system, which uses Treasury securities as a benchmark for mortgages and other debts.

“Happy to meet with McCarthy,” Biden said Wednesday. “But not on whether or not the debt limit gets extended. That’s not negotiable.”

As for work requirements, White House spokesman Michael Kikukawa said the president “has been clear that he will oppose policies that push Americans into poverty or cause them to lose health care.”

“That’s why he opposes Speaker McCarthy’s proposal to take food assistance and Medicaid away from millions of Americans,” Kikukawa said in a statement to HuffPost. “MAGA House Republicans would rather make it harder for people to feed their families and get the health care they need than make the super-wealthy pay their fair share.”

The safety net provisions of McCarthy’s Limit, Save, Grow Act of 2023 target nondisabled adults, without dependents, aged 18 to 55, requiring them to work or volunteer at least 20 hours per week to remain eligible for assistance from the federal government. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides 20 million households with a monthly stipend for food at grocery stores, already has a similar work requirement, though it’s a bit less strict and is often waived by states.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the Republican proposal, if enacted, would subject 15 million Medicaid recipients to work requirements, obligating them to work or volunteer 20 hours a week, and that 1.5 million would lose federal coverage — though states would opt to continue covering health costs for a significant portion of those. Overall, Medicaid pays for health care for more than 85 million low-income Americans.

Tightening existing work requirements in SNAP would cut off 275,000 people per month, the CBO said.

In a major report last year reviewing the literature on the topic, the CBO concluded that “work requirements in SNAP and Medicaid have reduced benefits more than they have increased people’s earnings,” meaning the benefit cuts don’t necessarily spur people into gainful employment as much as Republicans say.

Some Democrats have suggested Biden ought to drop his opposition to negotiating with McCarthy on a debt limit bill. For the most part, however, Democrats have remained united, and rank-and-file lawmakers seem unworried that Biden would cut a work requirement deal with Republicans.

“I feel confident the president’s gonna hold strong on the position that we have right now,” Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.) said. “We’re just going to continue to pound the pavement the fact that they’re holding the financial stability of so many of our most vulnerable communities in the balance for political reasons.”

Echoing Biden, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) wouldn’t even speculate about what an eventual negotiation might look like.

“What the Republicans are doing is they’re taking our economy and the global economy hostage,” she said. “I think that there is time to have budget negotiations and have those conversations but they should not be tied to raising the debt ceiling.”

Republicans themselves were not unanimous about the work requirements in their bill. Some lawmakers, such as Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) — one of four Republicans who voted against the bill — thought the proposal didn’t go far enough. Some thought the work requirement provisions went too far, but voted for the bill anyway.

“I think the bottom line is they’re not going to be in the final product,” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) told HuffPost, noting that Senate Democrats and Biden wouldn’t accept the work requirements. The debt ceiling standoff, he said, “is gonna end with a two-party solution at the last minute.”

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