Tighter work requirements for welfare programs on table in debt ceiling talks - sources

FILE PHOTO: Scenes on the Capitol Hill during negotiations over the debt ceiling in Washington, U.S.

By Jarrett Renshaw

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Aides for President Joe Biden and Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy have been discussing tightening work requirements for food and other programs for low-income Americans ahead of a debt ceiling meeting between the two leaders on Tuesday, according to two sources familiar with the discussions.

The discussions have been largely focused on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the federal nutrition assistance program that reaches over 40 million people, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a time-limited program that helps families with children when parents or other relatives cannot provide basic needs.

Tightening work requirement for low-income benefit programs has been a key demand of Republicans, who are also pushing for federal spending cuts in exchange for votes to raise the federal government's $31.4 trillion debt ceiling, and avoid an economically catastrophic default before June 1.

The idea would face stiff opposition from progressive members of Biden's Democratic party, who have already signaled they would never support an idea they consider cruel.

"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," Democratic Senator John Fetterman, of Pennsylvania, said in a statement about House Republicans' proposal.

The federal SNAP program helped 41.2 million Americans pay for food and groceries in 2022, costing taxpayers $119.4 billion, according to government data.

The original Republican proposal would require an estimated one million more Americans to work at least 20 hours per week, by raising the work requirement age to receive SNAP benefits for more than three months from 50 to 56, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program, estimates. The TANF program helps fewer than a 1 million families and costs about $16.5 billion a year, federal data shows.

"The President has also been clear that he will not accept policies that push Americans into poverty. He will evaluate whatever proposals Republicans bring to the table based on those principles," White House spokesman Michael Kikukawa said in an email on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Heather Timmons and Doina Chiacu)