Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s demand that any deal to raise the debt limit must include stricter work requirements for social safety net programs — and President Biden’s hints that he might be willing to accept such a bargain — has drawn a backlash from liberal Democrats in Congress, underscoring the tricky politics at play in bipartisan talks to avert a default.
The proposal has become a central issue in negotiations between Mr. Biden and Mr. McCarthy, which entered a new phase this week as the two offered glimmers of hope that they could reach a deal to increase the borrowing limit, now projected to be reached as early as June 1, and avoid an economic catastrophe.
House Republicans’ debt limit bill, approved last month along party lines, would impose stricter work requirements for beneficiaries of food stamps, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and the speaker said this week that Republicans would insist on such a provision as part of any deal. Mr. Biden has pointedly left the door open to the idea, noting that he voted for work requirements as a senator.
Talk of such a compromise has set off a wave of anger among liberals on Capitol Hill, who have begun openly fretting that the president might agree to a deal they cannot accept.
“I cannot in good conscience support a debt ceiling proposal that pushes people into poverty,” said Senator John Fetterman, Democrat of Pennsylvania.
The pushback reflects the political crosscurrents at play in the talks between Mr. Biden and Mr. McCarthy, both of whom have to contend with slim majorities in Congress and uncompromising political bases that will find any agreement hard to swallow.
The hard-right Freedom Caucus called on Mr. McCarthy on Thursday to stop negotiating with White House officials until the Senate passed House Republicans’ debt ceiling bill — legislation that would slash federal spending by an average of 18 percent over the next decade and is anathema to Democrats. “No more discussion on watering it down,” the group tweeted. “Period.”
The growing unhappiness in both flanks highlighted how difficult it will be for negotiators to cobble together a debt limit bill that can win the votes to pass both chambers. Lawmakers on both the hard left and right may end up withholding their support, with conservatives arguing that the deal does not go far enough in reducing spending and liberals arguing that it goes too far.
Mr. McCarthy was unusually upbeat on Thursday about the state of the talks, telling reporters that negotiators could reach a deal in principle as early as this weekend.
“We’re not there, we haven’t agreed to anything yet, but I see the path that we can come to an agreement,” he said.
Mr. Biden has repeatedly shown an openness to negotiating with Republicans on work requirements. The president told reporters on Wednesday before he left for Japan that it was “possible” he would accept some G.O.P. proposals on the issue, but that he would not agree to making changes “of any consequence.”
“I’m not going to accept any work requirements that’s going to have an impact on the medical health needs of people,” Mr. Biden said.
Mr. McCarthy has not been precise about what kind of work requirements he would demand, suggesting that he might be willing to narrow the scope of those included in the House Republican bill. Republicans have long pushed for more stringent work requirements, arguing that they lift Americans out of poverty and increase the labor force participation rate, and there has been little in the way of bipartisan consensus on the issue since President Bill Clinton’s welfare overhaul.
While no agreements have been reached in the current round of debt talks, work requirements are among the issues negotiators on both sides have agreed to discuss, which also include capping federal spending, clawing back unspent funds allocated to address the coronavirus pandemic and loosening restrictions on domestic energy projects.
The bill House Republicans passed in April would make able-bodied adults without dependents who receive food benefits subject to work requirements until they are 55 years old, raising the current age from 49. It would require Medicaid recipients between the ages of 19 and 55 who are able-bodied and do not have dependents to either work, engage in community service or participate in a work-training program for at least 80 hours per month to remain eligible for benefits.
Liberal Democrat dismiss the idea as draconian.
“It’s absurd to come up with a proposal that will result in children being thrown off of child care, off of health care, be devastating to elderly people,” said Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont. “We cannot be blackmailed into balancing the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable and leaving the most affluent alone.”
Instead, progressives have increasingly rallied around the idea that Mr. Biden should invoke the 14th Amendment, which says that the validity of the United States’ public debt “shall not be questioned,” to continue issuing new debt to pay bondholders, Social Security recipients, government employees and others even if Congress fails to extend the government’s borrowing authority when the limit is reached.
A group of 11 senators led by Mr. Sanders wrote to Mr. Biden on Thursday urging him to “prepare to exercise your authority under the 14th Amendment.”
“Republicans’ unwillingness to consider one penny in new revenue from the wealthy and large corporations,” they wrote, “along with their diminishment of the disastrous consequences of default, have made it seemingly impossible to enact a bipartisan budget deal at this time.”
That would amount to a constitutional challenge to the existence of the debt limit, arguing that language in the 14th Amendment overrides the statutory borrowing limit, which currently caps federal debt at $31.4 trillion and requires congressional approval to raise or lift.
If members of his hard-right flank balk at voting for a deal he negotiates, Mr. McCarthy would need Democratic votes to pass the bill in the House.
Russell T. Vought, the former Trump administration budget director who now leads the far-right Center for Renewing America and has become a guru for Freedom Caucus lawmakers, has begun to show signs of unease with the talks. “Any deal that tosses the House’s first year cut to ’22 spending levels ($150 billion cut to nondefense spending) is unacceptable,” he wrote on Twitter.
Democrats, too, threw cold water on the negotiations, saying their side should not compromise given that Republicans would need their votes to pass any final compromise.
“McCarthy has nowhere near the votes for a deal and therefore cannot negotiate debt ceiling,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, wrote on Twitter. “You need 218 votes. GOP has maybe ~150. They will need anywhere from 50-100 House Dems to pass anything.”
Carl Hulse contributed reporting.