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Progressives Warn Joe Biden Over Debt Limit Concessions

WASHINGTON — Progressive groups and lawmakers are growing anxious about President Joe Biden’s negotiations with congressional Republicans, sounding alarms about the impact of potential cuts to programs for low-income Americans.

Biden suggested over the weekend that he would be open to a deal imposing stricter work requirements in federal safety net programs. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has insisted on including such changes, as well as other steep budget cuts, in exchange for lifting the federal “debt ceiling” ahead of a June 1 statutory borrowing deadline.

“We have made clear publicly and privately that not just work requirements but spending cuts, broad spending cuts, these are off the table,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told HuffPost ahead of another meeting between Biden and congressional leaders on Tuesday afternoon.

“I sure didn’t come to Washington to take vital assistance away from working people at the same time big bank CEOs nearly crash the economy and get to jet off to Hawaii scot-free. I cannot in good conscience support a debt ceiling proposal that pushes people into poverty,” added Sen. John Fetterman (D-Penn.) in a statement.

ProsperUS, a coalition of major progressive groups, also urged Biden to reject any agreement “that would hurt the most vulnerable people in our economy.” The organization added in a statement: “If House Republicans were serious about reducing deficits and raising revenue, they would stop shielding the wealthy and big corporations from paying their fair share in taxes.”

As part of their debt limit bill, which the House approved on a party-line vote last month, Republicans proposed a new limit on Medicaid benefits for unemployed adults without dependents, as well as expanding existing “work requirements” for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The bill would limit SNAP benefits to unemployed childless adults up to age 55 instead of limiting them only to those younger than 50, as under current law.

Most households that receive SNAP benefits include minors, people with disabilities and seniors. The Republican proposal only targets able-bodied adults without dependents.

In his comments on Sunday, Biden seemed to rule out only the Medicaid part of the Republican proposal. But on Monday he also criticized the provision dealing with SNAP, which provides monthly benefits to 20 million households.

“The House Republican wish list would put a million older adults at risk of losing their food assistance and going hungry,” Biden said on Twitter.

Jayapal sounded satisfied with Biden’s follow-up about SNAP work requirements on Tuesday. “The White House backed off of that,” she said.

Republicans also proposed stricter work rules for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a much smaller program that serves fewer than 1 million households, all with children. Biden hasn’t addressed that proposal.

But Republicans might not accept changes to just the smallest of the three programs they’ve targeted.

“TANF work requirements on their own would not be sufficient,” Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), lead Republican advocate for changes to SNAP, told HuffPost on Tuesday, noting that TANF already has “robust” work requirements.

Most congressional Democrats are refraining from commenting directly on the talks — which they insist deal with the budget, and not the more immediate problem of the debt limit — while also expressing public support for Biden’s negotiating strategy.

But concern is rising within the Democratic Party about the prospect of staving off a disastrous federal debt default as Republicans insist on large spending reductions in the coming years, including annual automatic spending cuts. The House GOP debt limit bill would limit discretionary spending growth to 1% over the next decade, without specifying which programs exactly would see cuts.

“I do have concern that if we’re going to reach a budget agreement … that we have the courage to spell out the specific cuts in that and not leave it to an automatic process,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told HuffPost.

Progressive lawmakers are being even more vocal about proposed GOP spending reductions and stricter food aid work requirements, warning they would harm vulnerable Americans.

“I understand that the president is in a difficult position with such a man who is willing to inflict so much damage on the nation,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said. “But we cannot accept cuts that will do real damage to millions of people in this country at the same moment that every billionaire, every billionaire corporation, and every loophole to protect those billionaires and billionaire corporations is carefully protected.”

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), meanwhile, told HuffPost he wished Biden weren’t negotiating with Republicans at all.

“I’m frustrated that we even have to engage in these conversations because it gives credibility to what Republicans are trying to do, which is pretty much hold the global economy hostage to fake as if they are fiscally responsible when they’re not.”