WASHINGTON ― Before lawmakers left for their August recess, the House Republican in charge of GOP efforts to cut food stamp enrollment said he hoped that voters over the break could convince Senate Democrats of the wisdom of his bill.
“I hope they get an earful from their constituents back home ― that asking folks to work, train or volunteer for 20 hours a week in order to participate in public assistance is a good thing,” Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, told reporters in July.
But now that Congress is back and the ears of Democrats are apparently unfilled with calls to cut food stamps, it’s Republicans who seem more willing to change their position ― or, at least, to make a tactical retreat ahead of the midterm elections.
On a number of issues ― food stamps, a border wall, even Obamacare ― Republicans appear to be softening their hardline stances, if only for the moment before voters go to the polls.
Let’s Not Talk About The Wall
Take the border wall, for instance. Congressional Republicans have consistently said it’s a priority of theirs to secure money for this cornerstone of President Donald Trump’s agenda. But a year and a half into Trump’s presidency, the wall has not materialized. Congress, like Mexico, does not seem willing to pay for it.
While Republicans have said all year that it’s important to get wall funding in the next round of appropriations, Democrats have made it clear they’re unwilling to go along with that sort of spending bill. So, rather than potentially shut down the government over a wall, Republicans are passing as many government funding bills as possible and leaving the wall for another day.
“Not fighting for the wall becomes a tactical question more than folding,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the Freedom Caucus, told HuffPost on Wednesday. “You know, when’s the best time to take that fight?”
It’s not that Republicans are giving up on the wall ― they’re not. They just recognize that a messy spending fight, over a wall, several weeks before an already gloomy midterm election is not the best closing argument for keeping Republicans in control of the House and Senate.
Don’t Mention The Sick People
Neither is a fight over protecting people with pre-existing conditions less.
Republicans have sought for years to dismantle Obamacare, including a popular measure that stops insurers from charging more to people with pre-existing conditions or rejecting them for coverage outright. But after the GOP’s failed attempts last year to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, Republicans now are seeking new headlines.
At the end of August, a group of Republican senators introduced legislation supposedly supporting protections for people with pre-existing conditions. The truth was more complicated, as the bill would continue to bar insurers from refusing to cover people with pre-existing conditions, but would allow them to sell policies that don’t cover the conditions.
Again, there hasn’t been an actual ideological shift among Republicans. GOP lawmakers still want to repeal Obamacare, just as most want to build a border wall and impose stricter requirements on food stamp recipients. But they understand that espousing these policies so close to an election might harm their re-election efforts.
Of course, when you ask Republicans about their rhetorical shift, they largely deny it. But then, Republicans have already embraced a revisionist history about some of their more unpopular policy efforts.
When HuffPost asked Republicans about their record on pre-existing conditions on Thursday, House lawmakers generally acted like the bill they’d passed in May 2016 was one that wouldn’t have affected coverage for sick people.
“We did get a health care reform bill through that did protect people with pre-existing conditions,” Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) said.
When we challenged that assertion ― House Republicans passed a bill that would have allowed insurers to charge sick people more and would have tried to bring down costs for those people through so-called high-risk pools ― Davidson insisted that the GOP bill would have protected people with pre-existing conditions in “the same way” as Obamacare.
We eventually did get Davidson to admit the GOP bill wouldn’t have addressed pre-existing conditions “the same way” as the Affordable Care Act, but he still downplayed the differences. “It’s not as different as a lot of people want to make it. It’s really not that big of a change,” Davidson said.
One of the architects of the GOP health care plan, Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), suggested Republicans have wanted to protect people with pre-existing conditions all along.
“Going back to the 2009 debate, the 2010 debate, I think we all agreed on pre-existing conditions,” he said. (Again, attempts to prevent the passage of Obamacare, as well as the yearslong effort to repeal it, contradict Roe’s claim.)
But when you challenge Republicans on their claim, they simply point to the high-risk pools in their bill, which would have put sick people into a separate insurance program that, by all other accounts, would actually have raised their insurance prices.
In the words of Roe, however: “We did cover pre-existing conditions, in a different way.”
And because Republicans are arguing in a counterfactual world, where claims that their bill would have protected people with pre-existing conditions are tested by partisan health care wonks instead of the experiences of the people affected, they confidently make false claims.
Think About Food Stamps Later
The contradiction between the health care legislation Republicans still want to pass and the claims Republicans are making now seems to be more a rhetorical sleight of hand than a tactical retreat, but it’s a different story with food stamps, where Republicans continue to say they support expanded work requirements but seem prepared to compromise on the current farm bill.
The farm bill, which reauthorizes agricultural subsidies as well as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (i.e., food stamps), passed the House in July with only Republican votes. That partisan division was due in large part to the work requirements that Republicans have pushed for years. But now, simple math is forcing their hand: Republicans need at least nine Democrats to get any food stamp legislation through the Senate, and so far none of them have signaled support for stricter benefit rules.
Facing that reality, many Republicans seem willing to compromise on the stricter work requirements in the farm bill, under the belief that they can get them at a later date in another piece of legislation. Either way, they don’t seem to want to get into it so close to the midterms.
As House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Thursday, “There are different ways of getting at work incentives, and I’ll just leave it at that.”
There are already work requirements in SNAP, with the strictest applying to childless adults aged 18 to 49, who can qualify for only three months of benefits unless they can prove they work 20 hours per week. The House bill would broaden the requirement to include adults in their fifties and parents of children older than 6.
The GOP bill also would subject more SNAP recipients to stricter asset tests ― a change that would have eliminated benefits for nearly 2 million households if it had been in place in 2015, according to an analysis by Mathematica Policy Research published Thursday. The Congressional Budget Office previously said the added work requirements would reduce enrollment by 1.2 million going forward.
The Senate farm bill did not include stricter SNAP work requirements, and now Conaway is in negotiations over a compromise bill with a group of members from both parties and both chambers. Conaway recently proposed a compromise version of the House bill in those talks but declined to share details publicly.
When we asked whether the impending election weakens his hand, Conaway said he didn’t think SNAP work requirements were much of an “election issue.”
“But,” he continued, “every district and every state is different, and everybody at the table’s got a different perspective in terms of what their current opponent looks like.”
Jeffrey Young contributed to this report.