President Joe Biden on Sunday suggested he’d be willing to accept stricter limits on federal benefits for unemployed Americans.
Republicans have proposed cutting health care and food benefits to unemployed adults without dependents as part of a broader legislative deal that would cut federal spending but allow the government to function.
In remarks to reporters in Delaware on Sunday, Biden seemingly ruled out new “work requirements” for Medicaid, which covers health care costs for more than 85 million Americans.
But he didn’t say the same for food assistance, and he noted that as a senator, he voted for the 1996 welfare reform law that cracked down on food and cash aid to unemployed adults.
“I voted for tougher aid programs that’s in the law now, but for Medicaid it’s a different story,” Biden said. “And so I’m waiting to hear what their exact proposal is.”
White House spokesman Michael Kikukawa said Biden won’t accept proposals that take away health care coverage and that he “will not accept policies that push Americans into poverty.”
Sharon Parrott, president of the influential Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank, said the White House commitment to resisting policies that push people into poverty is key ― and a clue that Biden would resist proposals to alter federal safety net programs.
“Research is clear: red tape-laden work reporting requirements take help away from people while failing to deliver on the promise of increased employment and lower poverty,” Parrott said on Twitter.
Biden met last week with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and other Hill leaders, and will meet again on Tuesday. In the meantime, staff-level conversations have continued.
But McCarthy sounded a sour note about the talks on Monday morning.
“It doesn’t seem to me yet they want a deal, it just seems like they want to look like they are in a meeting but they aren’t talking anything serious,” McCarthy told CNN.
The talks center on the “debt ceiling,” a legal limit on how much the federal government can borrow. Since federal spending exceeds tax revenue, the government has to borrow, by selling securities, in order to finance the difference. If Congress doesn’t increase the limit, the government could default on interest payments to bondholders and even fail to make Social Security payments starting in June.
House Republicans passed a symbolic bill that would raise the debt ceiling until next spring, add work requirements to Medicaid and broaden existing work requirements in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which provides monthly food benefits to more than 20 million households. The current SNAP work requirement allows only three months of benefits to unemployed childless adults under age 50 unless they work or volunteer 20 hours per week.
The Republican bill would raise the age cutoff to 55 and make it harder for states to waive the rules in times of high unemployment. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the proposal would trim enrollment by 275,000 people per month.
The change would reduce federal spending by only $11 billion over a decade ― less than 1% of the cuts Republicans have proposed ― but the idea of “work requirements” has outsized importance in GOP talking points about spending.
Biden has refused to negotiate over the debt ceiling, arguing Republicans have taken an unacceptable hostage since the consequences of a debt default could roil the global economy. But the president has said he’s fine with parallel negotiations about federal spending. Since spending and the debt ceiling are linked in Republicans’ minds, the talks amount to a negotiation.
Biden declined to give more details about the discussions on Sunday when pressed by a reporter.
“I’ve learned a long time ago, and you know as well as I do: It never is good to characterize a negotiation in the middle of a negotiation,” he said. “I remain optimistic because I’m a congenital optimist. But I really think there’s a desire on their part, as well as ours, to reach an agreement, and I think we’ll be able to do it.”