New GOP offer for Biden in debt limit talks: requiring more people on welfare to work

WASHINGTON – Congressional Republicans are floating a longtime goal – getting more people off federal assistance and into the workforce – as a tradeoff they’d accept in exchange for avoiding a default on the nation’s debts.

President Joe Biden has said lawmakers have an obligation to make sure the nation’s bills get paid and he won’t negotiate conditions.

Passing tougher work requirements will be a difficult haul for Republicans who only control the House. But, after getting pummeled by Biden over who will better protect Medicare and Social Security, Republicans may be hoping the issue will resonate with the working-class voters Biden has been courting as he prepares to run for re-election.

Or, it could backfire if the White House successfully charges Republicans with going after the poor after cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy during the Trump administration.

But House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., reminded Biden Tuesday that he’s supported work requirements in the past.

And House Republicans held hearings Wednesday to promote the idea.

“We should be exploring every possibility to get our fellow Americans back into the labor force, including strengthening work requirements across all government programs,” said Rep. Jason Smith, R-Mo., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

'On the clock': McCarthy urges Biden to restart talks on debt ceiling as default looms

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., talks to reporters at the Capitol on Friday, March 24, 2023.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., talks to reporters at the Capitol on Friday, March 24, 2023.

What have Republicans proposed?

There were no specifics in the letter McCarthy sent Biden Tuesday in which he listed strengthening work requirements as one of four ways to reduce the national debt.

But Republicans have recently introduced legislation to restrict the ability of states to reduce work requirements for food stamp recipients and to expand who has to work to get help. For example, the age limit for work requirements on able-bodied adults without dependents would be raised from 49 to 65.

GOP Reps. Jake LaTurner of Kansas and Mary Miller of Illinois dropped a bill this month to require able-bodied adults to work or volunteer for at least 20 hours a week to remain eligible for Medicaid.

And at a House hearing Wednesday, Republicans said states are abusing loopholes to get around work requirements for cash assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Has Biden supported work requirements in the past?

As a senator, Biden voted for President Bill Clinton’s overhaul of America’s welfare system that included a lifetime limit on cash assistance and a requirement that able-bodied adults work after two years of help.

“The culture of welfare must be replaced with the culture of work,” Biden said in 1996.

But in recent years, Biden has opposed GOP efforts to expand work requirements.

When the Trump administration tried to tighten work requirements for food stamp recipients, Biden called the administration “morally bankrupt.”

As president, he opposed adding a work requirement to an enhanced child tax credit he wants to renew and make permanent.

“All these people are working anyway,” Biden said in 2021.

Also, Biden ended the permission slips the Trump administration gave some states to add work requirements to Medicaid.

President Joe Biden speaks about his administration's plans to protect Social Security and Medicare and lower healthcare costs, Feb. 9, 2023, at the University of Tampa in Tampa, Florida.
President Joe Biden speaks about his administration's plans to protect Social Security and Medicare and lower healthcare costs, Feb. 9, 2023, at the University of Tampa in Tampa, Florida.

Are Republicans likely to be successful?

There is probably more potential for compromise on some of the other GOP policy priorities McCarthy mentioned to Biden, such as repurposing unspent pandemic funding.

Plus, Republicans were not able to get tougher work requirements for food stamp recipients through both the House and the Senate when they controlled both chambers in 2018.

But apart from the fight over the debt ceiling, work requirements will be an issue as lawmakers debate legislation needed to continue food stamp and cash assistance programs beyond this year.

What are the arguments for and against work requirements?

Republicans argue too many people are being paid to sit at home while employers are desperate for workers.

“We must end the era of dependency for able-bodied adults, encourage labor force participation, and restore the dignity of work,” Texas Rep. Jodey Arrington, the GOP chairman of the House Budget Committee said Wednesday when he opened a hearing on the state of the nation’s finances.

Opponents say most working-age adults receiving food stamps or health benefits are already working or are temporarily between jobs.  Most of those who aren’t, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy priorities, are caring for family members, going to school or can’t work because of health problems.

If the goal is to address a shortage of workers, said Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., a better solution is providing child care and paid family and medical leave.

“They need childcare. They need a safe place to live, food to eat, reliable transportation, good education and health care,” he said at the Ways and Means hearing. “If we want to support work, that's where we need to start.”

What does this have to do with whether the government defaults on its debt?

House Republicans say they won’t vote to raise the limit on how much the nation can borrow without cutting spending.

The nation could default, as soon as June, on the bills it’s already racked up unless Congress raises the debt limit.

Biden has said he won’t sit down to discuss potential cuts with McCarthy until Republicans release a counterproposal to the budget plan Biden released this month.

Dig Deeper

Debt ceiling explainer: What happens if the US hits the debt ceiling? Here's what to expect if we reach debt limit.

Biden's budget: Takeaways from Biden's $6.9 trillion budget proposal: Tax the rich. Cut the deficit. Take on the GOP.

Negotiations: Amid debt ceiling standoff, why Joe Biden is refusing to negotiate with Republicans

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Republicans want work requirements for welfare to cut federal spending