WASHINGTON ― A proposal for stricter limits on food benefits for unemployed Americans is among the final obstacles to a deal on raising the nation’s debt ceiling.
Republicans have held hostage the government’s ability to borrow money to pay its expenses, threatening a risky default in the coming weeks unless Democrats agree to spending cuts and new work requirements in federal assistance programs.
In a statement Friday, White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said that Republicans were willing to cause a debt default and recession “unless they can take food out of the mouths of hungry Americans.”
GOP lawmakers initially proposed new rules for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and the tiny Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF, as well as Medicaid, the federal-state health care insurance program. In public statements, President Joe Biden has seemed to rule out Medicaid changes while remaining open to modifying SNAP and TANF, which provide food and cash benefits.
But Bates signaled strong opposition to the SNAP proposal, noting that it would save only $11 billion. He compared that with the $3.5 trillion it would cost the U.S. over a decade to extend a package of tax cuts first implemented under Donald Trump’s presidential administration, as Republicans are now considering.
“The new debt they would force onto the American peoples’ credit card with this wasteful handout to billionaires and giant corporations is literally 300 times the savings that would be pocketed by making 300,000 of our fellow citizens go hungry,” Bates said.
A source familiar with the negotiations said SNAP remained a sticking point Saturday afternoon as negotiators from the White House continued to meet with Republicans at the Capitol.
More than 20 million households receive monthly SNAP benefits that can be redeemed for food at grocery stores. The program already limits benefits to unemployed adults ages 18 to 49 if they don’t have children or disabilities. Republicans want to deny benefits to people as old as 55 unless they work, volunteer or enroll in a training program for at least 20 hours per week. They also want to limit the ability of states to exempt beneficiaries from work requirements or waive them when unemployment is high.
The Congressional Budget Office has said the Republican proposal would reduce SNAP enrollment by 275,000 per month.
In a review of research on the impact of SNAP’s existing work requirements, the CBO said that although some beneficiaries get jobs as a result of the policy, many more simply lose benefits, and the people in that situation “have few or no other sources of income, and many of them are homeless.”
But as the White House signals its unwillingness to change SNAP, Republicans seem similarly dug in on their own position.
“Democrats right now are willing to default on the debt so they can continue making welfare payments to people who are refusing to work,” Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) said Friday.
Asked if Republicans would be willing to drop their demand for stricter rules, Graves said, “Hell no.”