Voices: Progressives say no way on work requirements for welfare in debt limit negotiations

 (Getty Images for The Recording A)
(Getty Images for The Recording A)

President Joe Biden, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had another meeting to discuss a path to raise the debt limit.

At the moment, one of the main sticking points for Republicans, along with demands for major spending cuts, is enacting work requirements for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance, the program more commonly known as “food stamps,” as well as Medicaid. Mr McCarthy has noted that Mr Biden voted for similar provisions as a senator.

House Republicans put such provisions in the debt limit increase bill they passed last month, and Senate Republicans seem to be on board as well.

“It’s actually something the president has supported as a senator years ago,” Republican Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, a state that experienced a massive welfare scandal wherein former NFL star Brett Favre misused money for among other things, a college volleyball court, told The Independent. “But in terms of what the chances are, I’m not able to say, but it’s a sensible requirement.”

Similarly, Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, who is currently blocking every military nomination over objections to the Pentagon’s policy on abortion, made a similar case.

“We need people working,” he told The Independent. “And, you know, we got way too many people that are that are getting checks that are not working.”

This comes despite the fact that 15 per cent of people in the Yellowhammer State are on SNAP, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Mr Biden expressed some openness to work requirements, saying on Sunday, “I voted for tougher aid programs that’s in the law now, but for Medicaid it’s a different story. And so I’m waiting to hear what their exact proposal is.”

But multiple progressive lawmakers told The Independent that work requirements are their hard “no” line. When asked if she was worried about work requirements, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York told me an emphatic “yes.”

Ms Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow Squad members have at times found themselves on opposing sides as the White House. Back in 2021, Ms Orcasio-Cortez, Representatives Jamaal Bowman of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Cori Bush of Missouri and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts were the only Democrats who voted against the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Now they seem to be expressing the same concerns.

“Work requirements should be off the table because the SNAP should be off the table. Cuts to anything, quite frankly, should be off the table,” Mr Bowman told me.

Back in 2021, progressives opposed passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill after an hours-long huddle among progressives because they feared it would sink the chances of passing Build Back Better. They were ultimately proven right when Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia killed the bill.

Now, they fear that the president will blink in negotiations with Mr McCarthy.

“I’m concerned because, you know, the president has, every now and then, moved to the right, if you will, to acquiesce to a so-called independent voter and the American people want us to be bold and to stand firm,” Mr Bowman said.

On the surface, a handful of progressives opposing a debt limit bill might not seem like much. But the House has tight margins, with Republicans holding only a nine-seat majority.

As the protracted fight to make Mr McCarthy speaker showed, many Republicans in his conference are more than willing to revolt against him if they feel he does not meet their demands and inevitably, some of them will oppose any final spending deal, which ironically would make Mr McCarthy more dependent on Mr Jeffries, who can then extract demands from the speaker.

This ultimately can give progressives the leverage they need to oppose cuts they see as unduly harmful to the poor,; or if they see a final spending deal as too draconian, they can ultimately sink a deal.