House Republicans are ratcheting up their focus on toughening work requirements for several government assistance programs as a potential condition of raising the debt ceiling.

While the conference is still working out the details, some Republicans have set their sights on programs like SNAP, often referred to as the food stamps program, and Medicaid for potential changes.

The idea is already drawing the ire of Democrats who have panned such changes as a “non-starter.”

“Everybody believes in a safety net, but I don’t think many people think it’s right to be paying billions of dollars to allow people to sit at home and work and not work when everybody’s looking for workers,” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) said. 

In a letter to President Biden last week, Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) pitched “strengthening work requirements for those without dependents who can work” among his first broad proposals for spending reforms Republicans could get behind as part of a bipartisan agreement to raise the debt ceiling. 

The letter comes as rank-and-file members and GOP leaders have signaled growing interest in tightening work requirements for certain programs as one way to curb government spending. 

Since the party assumed control of the lower chamber in January, some Republicans have been putting ink to proposals aimed at doing just that.

One bill that has gotten attention is the “America Works Act,” introduced last month by Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), which features several proposals to tighten work requirements for SNAP. 

Under the bill, the age window within which childless, able-bodied adults must either work or participate in work training or education in order to receive benefits would widen from 18 to 49 to 18 to 65. It would also eliminate states’ ability “to carry over exemption waivers from year to year, reducing instances of stockpiling and hampering abuses of the law,” Johnson’s office said. 

The pitch Johnson said has stood out as “most important” to those in the 50-member Main Street Caucus that he leads is ending what he described as the “really egregious loopholes that states have been utilizing to ignore the work requirements.” 

He added changes to the age threshold “are in general, less important” at the moment. 

“I think we may yet get to an opportunity where that could be something in play as a part of the debt ceiling negotiations,” Johnson said. 

At the same time, there has been more chatter among Republicans around work requirements for Medicaid, with some saying the issue was broached during the House GOP’s annual issues retreat late last month.

“We talked about this at our planning retreat, but we never came to a final conclusion,” Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.) told reporters last week, while adding he still thinks potential changes to the program are on the table as the party plots next moves in debt ceiling talks.

McCarthy indicated last week that House Republicans could act first with their own debt ceiling measure, as the White House and Democrats have doubled down on their opposition to attaching conditions to any debt ceiling increase.

“The conference is very close, and if the president doesn’t act, then we will,” McCarthy told reporters on Thursday.

Recent estimates show Congress could have until anywhere from the start of summer and early fall to act on the debt limit or risk a default, which experts warn could yield devastating effects for the economy. 

Republicans have drawn red lines around raising the debt limit, which was last raised to roughly $31.4 trillion by Congress more than a year ago, without attaching some kind of fiscal reform or spending cuts to such legislation. 

Some Democrats have also signaled interest in pursuing bipartisan talks to tackle the nation’s deficit — separately from negotiations around the debt limit. But the party has largely rejected calls to concede to reforms as a condition to raise the debt ceiling.  

The party has also attacked proposals by Republicans seeking to reduce spending partly by trimming nondefense programs and adding restrictions experts say could make it harder for Americans to access certain social programs.

In comments to The Hill last week, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) knocked Republicans over the push to potentially tie work requirements to the debt limit talks, accusing the party of trying to “hold poor hostage.” 

He instead said the GOP should “meet their work requirements [and] pay the nation’s bills.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who chairs the Senate Committee on Agriculture, also called the push a “complete non-starter.” She added, “We have responsible work requirements that will kick in again, probably July 1, that were suspended during the pandemic.”

But Republicans are defending the growing campaign as the party looks to make the case to the public the need to reduce government spending amid a partisan battle over the nation’s debt limit. 

“At a time when we’ve got record deficits and debt, and we’re borrowing money from China, why should we be paying millions of people not to work when every employer is looking for numbers,” Scalise told The Hill. 

In an interview on Monday, Marc Goldwein, senior vice president and senior policy director for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, also said it’s worth exploring how to reform work requirements, but cautioned “it should be directionally right” and probably wouldn’t amount a “major budget saver.”

“The place where it can be directionally wrong is actually the program integrity side, because if you don’t design these well, they could end up taking people off the program that actually are supposed to be on the program,” he said.