While they were unified in their criticism of Republican-led spending cuts and work requirements for government benefits, Connecticut’s congressional delegation split over the vote on the debt limit deal to prevent the U.S. from defaulting ahead of next week’s deadline.
Only two of the five members of the delegation voted for the agreement brokered by the White House and Republican leadership. Democrats acknowledged that Wednesday’s vote in the U.S. House was a tough one for them, especially since the legislation would help avoid the harmful economic effects of a debt default.
The debt limit deal would suspend the country’s borrowing limit to pay its bills through early 2025 in exchange for cutting non-defense spending, ending President Joe Biden’s pause on student loan repayments and cutting back on IRS enforcement funds and unspent COVID-19 money.
Imposing additional work requirements for government programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) was a particular sticking point for members of Connecticut’s delegation. Current law requires adults under 50 to work for full access to SNAP benefits.
The bill ultimately included a more watered-down version than was originally proposed by Republicans. Adults up to 54 who are able-bodied and do not live with dependent children will need to work or participate in related training for at least 80 hours a month. The age increase would go into effect in 2025 and expire five years later.
But exceptions were made for veterans, people experiencing homelessness and young adults phasing out of foster care. A congressional budget analysis found that SNAP would see an overall boost in funding, while TANF would see a reduction.
All five of the lawmakers acknowledged the work of Biden and his staffers negotiating with Republican leadership. But only Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, and Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, voted for the bill.
Himes had told Connecticut Public in a Tuesday interview he would reluctantly vote for the bill to prevent “chaos in the markets” if Congress did not lift the borrowing limit. In a statement late Wednesday, he called a vote for the deal an “unfortunate necessity” and argued that Congress should get rid of the debt ceiling altogether.
“I am grateful to President Biden and the Democratic Congressional leadership for pursuing the compromise that prevents catastrophe, but it should not have had to come to this,” Himes said. “We must abolish the debt ceiling and debate each policy issue for its independent value without threatening the full faith and credit of the United States’ economy.”
While cuts were made in some places, Courtney said the bill offers some protections for programs like Medicaid, Social Security, Medicare, clean energy investments and treatment for veterans who were exposed to toxic burn pits and other substances while serving.
“Despite House Republicans’ reckless game of brinkmanship and attempts to gut critical programs, the final bipartisan agreement averts a catastrophic default while also shielding services Americans rely on from extreme cuts,” Courtney said.
But the remaining three members of the delegation ultimately could not get behind the deal.
Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th District, had vigorously pushed back against the GOP proposal of imposing tougher work requirements for full access to SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps.
For the congresswoman, government programs aiming to be a lifeline for lower-income families is personal. Hayes, who is the ranking member of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, Foreign Agriculture, and Horticulture, is a former food stamp recipient who was working and in school while raising young children at the time.
Hayes said she was unable to support reforming food assistance without “revisiting tax cuts for the rich.” And she raised concerns about what this could mean for the future of SNAP, which will make up the vast majority of the 2023 Farm Bill that is up for negotiation this year.
“Most alarming, I fear this is not the last we will see of attacks to SNAP. This agreement puts nutrition programs at even greater risk in the Farm Bill and appropriations process,” Hayes said. “The provisions in this bill do not offer significant savings or reduce the deficit, yet time after time when concessions are needed it is at the expense of the poorest communities who have no one to stand up for them.”
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, who is the ranking member of the influential House Appropriations Committee, had also raised “serious concerns” over the deal.
“I would not allow a default. But this is a problematic agreement that protects billionaires from taxes and hurts middle class and working families,” DeLauro said. “I can live with a painful compromise, but I cannot accept one so lopsided.”
While the delegation was divided on the vote, they all echoed a similar sentiment that Congress should not “normalize” how Republicans negotiated and forced an array of spending cuts to be linked to raising or suspending the debt limit.
“We would never let the country default, but by the same token, the Republicans are trying to normalize their reckless crisis as regular order,” Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, said. “Their attempt to normalize taking our economy hostage to cut important programs deserved a ‘no’ vote. We cannot normalize this process, including denying 700,000 older adults their food assistance.”
The Senate will now take up the bill, though the timeline is unclear. Any one senator can stall the process, which needs to wrap up by June 5. But senators overall feel confident they will pass the legislation with enough bipartisan support.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Wednesday he is a “pretty certain yes” on the debt ceiling package. He had previously raised concerns about stricter work requirements but noted the expansion of benefits for certain groups like veterans. Blumenthal said he was most frustrated by the reduction in IRS funding to deal with tax enforcement.
“In a way, it’s a net plus, although again I’m not thrilled with extending the work requirement to 54-year-olds” for SNAP benefits, Blumenthal said. “What bothers me the most is the cuts in spending on the Internal Revenue Service that would have enabled more effective enforcement against tax evasion and avoidance to allow tax cheats to avoid paying taxes.”
But Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., remained undecided on how he would vote as of Wednesday.
He said Biden kept some of Republicans’ bigger requests out of the deal, but Murphy’s overall assessment was that he was not a “fan” of negotiating with House Republicans. He argued that the process over the debt limit is “not a good sign” for future legislating.
“This isn’t a traditional negotiation like you have on guns or immigration or appropriations,” Murphy told reporters on Wednesday. “If your neighbor threatens to burn your house down and at the last minute doesn’t burn it down and is paid off, you don’t celebrate a new era of good relations with your neighbor. That’s essentially where we are.”
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.