Lawmakers in Congress are under pressure to overcome a political standoff to prevent the U.S. from defaulting on its debt for the first time in history — and any deal could include some cuts or changes to federal programs to get enough support from Republicans.
But some Democrats, including those who represent Connecticut, say they are unlikely to sign off on any agreement that imposes stricter work requirements to receive benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.
Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th District, said she is “very concerned” by the GOP push for tougher requirements to access SNAP benefits and believes it is “inappropriate” to include it in debt ceiling talks. She is the ranking member of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, Foreign Agriculture, and Horticulture and has been a vocal advocate for federal assistance programs for low-income families, including SNAP, which helps pay for groceries.
As lawmakers wait to see the parameters of a possible deal, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is engaged in talks with the White House and other congressional leaders to see if they can find common ground ahead of June 1, the projected date when Congress will need to raise the country’s borrowing limit or risk default. He has met or spoken with President Joe Biden a few times, and his team started negotiations this week with two key White House staffers.
Raising the debt ceiling allows the country to pay its existing bills and does not deal with new spending. But Republicans want to curb future spending to address the federal deficit and have tied those demands to any legislation dealing with the country’s borrowing power. House Republicans recently passed a bill with a multitude of cuts as a trade off for raising the debt limit, though it does not have the votes to clear the Senate or get the support of the president.
One of those proposals would raise the age limit for full SNAP eligibility to 56 by requiring able-bodied adults with no dependents to work at least 20 hours a week or participate in related training. Current law applies to those under age 50 and limits the amount of benefits if they do not reach that workload.
But Democrats like Hayes contend they are “not an automatic yes” on any measure including specific cuts or limits to federal benefits. More than 40 million Americans received food stamps, according to 2022 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In Connecticut, more than 222,600 households including 138,800 children receive SNAP benefits, according to state data.
“I do know most of the people who have the ability to work already work. This legislation disproportionately hurts children, seniors, disabled veterans and even active duty military receiving benefits,” Hayes said in a Wednesday interview.
“I will not sit by and say nothing while the most vulnerable people are used as a negotiating tool as if they’re draining the economy and the sole source of debt and deficit. I really don’t think there is a full understanding of who we’re talking about,” she added. “We want people to work — able-bodied people without dependents to seek employment, to actively pursue a path of self-sufficiency.”
Hayes has been open about her own personal experiences as a former SNAP recipient who was working and in school while raising young children. She said people have a “different interpretation” of the beneficiaries of the program. She also noted the particular challenges for people between 50 and 55 who have more “labor-intensive” work, such as those working as nursing assistants who might struggle to lift people.
Funding for the food stamp program will be at the center of discussions over the Farm Bill, which expires later this year and requires authorization every five years. Hayes pointed out that many Republicans ultimately got on board with the 2018 version of that legislation, which did not include stronger work requirements. But she said she is open to discussing such an issue during the upcoming Farm Bill negotiations rather than lumping it into a must-pass bill that does not deal with nutrition.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., echoed a similar sentiment, saying it would be challenging to vote for any debt ceiling agreement that imposes stricter requirements.
“I want to see exactly what they’re suggesting, but I don’t see any way that I could support those kinds of work requirements that are inequitable and cruelly burdensome,” Blumenthal said Wednesday.
Democrats argue that Republicans’ plan would affect the benefits of about 1 million Americans on food assistance if the work requirement age was raised to 56.
Eligible households in Connecticut and across the U.S. receive monthly benefits to help purchase food at designated supermarkets and stores. But nearly 3,800 food stamp recipients in Connecticut live in one of 24 towns where no retailer accepts this form of payment.
The proposed changes have the potential to affect about 12,000 women and children on food assistance in Connecticut and potentially disrupt eligibility for 11,000 people between 50 and 55, according to data from the office of Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District.
Courtney joined a number of Democrats on Wednesday in supporting a discharge petition to force a vote on raising the debt ceiling without the inclusion of spending cuts. Such a procedural tool needs 218 members to sign on, but because Republicans narrowly control the House, it would require at least several GOP lawmakers to join them, which is unlikely.
Many Republicans, however, believe such requirements incentivize people to find or stay in a job. They say the new requirements would still only apply to people who are able-bodied with no dependents.
“When we talk about work requirements, Sen. Biden voted for that. President Clinton signed it into law,” McCarthy said at a Wednesday press conference on the status of debt limit talks. “We watched every study after the fact take people from poverty and provide a job for them. So we saw Americans lifted up. We saw welfare rolls drop.”
Biden has acknowledged his past support for work requirements for federal assistance programs when he served as a senator. Earlier this week, he criticized Republicans for putting nutrition aid at risk over seeking to “reduce the deficit by making sure the wealthy and large corporations pay their fair share in taxes.” McCarthy said he is not considering raising taxes on higher-income earners.
The president reiterated his position on Wednesday that he will not support work requirements when it comes to federal health care programs like Medicaid, but he left the door open on other federal programs.
“I’m not going to accept any work requirements that’s going to impact on medical health needs of people,” Biden said in a Wednesday speech. “I’m not going to accept any work requirements that go much beyond what is already. I voted years ago for the work requirements that exist but it’s possible there could be a few others but not anything of any consequence.”
Uncertainty still looms about whether Democrats and Republicans can reach an agreement by June to avert what could be a catastrophic and unprecedented financial crisis. And some Connecticut lawmakers want to give the White House room to negotiate without publicly defining red lines or priorities.
“I think this is a really complicated topic that impacts the lives of millions of people,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said Wednesday when asked about work requirements for federal programs. “I think it’s unlikely to get worked out in a way that’s good for the country in the next seven to 10 days.”
The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.