McCarthy tries to hold off last-minute rebellion over work requirements in debt deal

“This is going to hurt with fiscal conservatives,” one House Republican member who planned to vote “no” on the bill texted from the closed-door House GOP caucus meeting just after the CBO report hit Tuesday night.

As word spread about the CBO report’s findings, texts, emails and calls from already restless rank-and-file members surged. Senior Republicans directed anxious members to Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), who has helped push the work requirements policy during the talks. “Dusty has the answers,” was one reply from a senior Republican lawmaker.

While House Republican leaders and McCarthy allies sought to immediately tamp down the furor, reaching out to members late into the night to argue the CBO projections were wrong, their arguments failed to quell some far-right lawmakers’ concerns. One of the debt deal’s most visible critics, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), blasted the bill’s “watered down work requirements that save $0” on Twitter Wednesday morning. Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) meanwhile issued a series of scathing tweets about how she “won’t be voting to expand government welfare today.”

Two GOP lawmakers, who were granted anonymity to discuss internal matters, said they worried the CBO projection could push members over the edge, or they could use it as cover to oppose a bill that’s deeply unpopular among several dozen GOP hardliners.

Realizing they needed to stanch the bleeding, GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) and a lineup of more than half a dozen heavy-hitting senior Republicans quickly assembled a call with reporters to argue the CBO score used “weak information” and double-counted unhoused people, veterans and youth recently aged out of foster care who would be covered for the first time under the deal

Stefanik argued the work requirements in the bill, including stricter measures for adults ages 50 to 54 without children, “will lift millions of Americans out of poverty and reenergize the workforce.”

House Agricultural Chair G.T. Thompson (R-Pa.), who oversees SNAP, said the CBO’s final funding estimate of the SNAP changes “should‘ve been a wash.”

Congressional Republicans have a longtime beef with CBO over the scoring of nutrition program spending and enrollment, but they knowingly rolled the dice with CBO analysts when they agreed to the exemptions sought by White House negotiators. Johnson also pushed back against Democratic arguments that work requirements don’t actually move people into the workforce, but only take away food aid. But, Johnson and other Republicans on the call did acknowledge that the push for stricter work requirements may cost more on “the front end,” by extending aid to certain groups before they can drop off the program and enter the workforce.

Some Republicans on the call defended the work requirements exemptions that the White House was able to insert during the negotiations — especially for former foster youth.

Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), one of the Republicans who helped negotiate the deal, told reporters Wednesday that he generally agreed with some of the exemptions Democrats fought for, saying that the U.S. needs “more thoughtful public policy for those who are emerging from foster care.”

“This is something those of us that know something about foster care are deeply concerned about and that’s what we baked into this agreement,” McHenry said.

McCarthy has touted the new work requirements and other restrictions for SNAP and an emergency cash assistance program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families as one of the major wins for Republicans in the debt negotiations with Biden — especially since a wide swath of Democrats fiercely oppose such measures. The TANF changes in particular would hit low-income families with children.

In a closed-door caucus meeting Tuesday evening, McCarthy didn’t directly address the new CBO score, but he made clear to his members that the new work requirements for SNAP and TANF would have never passed through a Democratic-majority Senate on their own, and had to be forced through in the agreement with Biden, according to two lawmakers in the room, who were granted anonymity to discuss internal conversations.

White House negotiators knew the work requirement exemptions they secured during the negotiations with Republicans, would likely mean the total number of people covered under SNAP would remain the same — with the new populations covered by the exemptions offsetting the estimated 275,000 adults in their 50s without children who are likely to lose food aid under the deal. White House officials have been aggressively pushing that point with Hill Democrats as they try to secure enough votes for the legislation.

But not all Democratic lawmakers have been comforted by the push.

“This is a food benefit. So moving the deck chairs around and saying, you get food, but you don’t — that’s not a very convincing argument to me,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the House’s leading anti-hunger advocate, said in an interview Tuesday. It’s also unclear to some lawmakers and anti-hunger advocates that the estimates on new SNAP beneficiaries, on paper, will actually bear out in reality, given the immense logistical challenge of signing up several hundred thousand new recipients, many unhoused and without documentation.

Democrats in the Senate are also still alarmed by the loss of food aid for hundreds of thousands of low-income Americans under the agreement, even if other vulnerable groups are successful in gaining new access.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in an interview called the bill “incredibly bad” and claimed Republicans were pushing the country to default unless they could take food away from children. Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), who chairs the subcommittee overseeing SNAP, has seemingly threatened to oppose any bill that hit the program.

A spokesperson for Fetterman said he “is still reviewing the debt limit legislation to understand SNAP and the Pennsylvania-related impacts, and he’s requested more information on both.”

And there’s no chance at this point for Democrats to strip the SNAP work requirements from the bill, something a group of House Democrats is still trying to push.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a key swing vote, said in an interview Tuesday that he doesn’t support voting on any amendments in the Senate. (That also helps protect a key pipeline measure he’s included.) In the case that a SNAP amendment was to come up in the upper chamber. Manchin, who’s previously told POLITICO he supports welfare to work reform, would likely oppose it — killing its chances. Even if some Senate progressives ultimately vote “no,” the chamber is still likely to pass the legislation. If most Republicans vote in favor of the debt deal, they only need a dozen or so Senate Democrats to pass the bill.

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