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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

House GOP’s plan to cut food stamps faces a tough vote

Rep. Marc Molinaro, (R-N.Y) walks down the House steps on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 28, 2023. As Republican leaders press to tighten work requirements for food stamps and other government assistance programs as a way to slash federal spending, Molinaro finds himself in a politically uncomfortable spot.

By Catie Edmondson

Republican Rep. Marc Molinaro, a former mayor who flipped an open seat in New York’s Hudson Valley last year and helped the GOP take back the House, frequently tells the story of how his mother relied on food stamps and subsidized school lunches to keep him fed as a child.

Now, as Republican leaders press to tighten work requirements for food stamps and other government assistance programs as a way to slash federal spending, Molinaro finds himself in a politically uncomfortable spot.

“I grew up on food stamps; my mom worked and worked hard, but she’s a single mom,” he said recently during a brief interview at the Capitol. “That is a red line for me. We’re not going to be touching or diminishing services or support for single moms.”

Molinaro’s reservations help explain why Republican leaders have had such a difficult time coalescing around a budget blueprint that could achieve the kind of deep spending cuts the party is seeking in exchange for raising the debt ceiling to avert a default as early as this summer.

Any cuts Republicans suggest will instantly become a line of attack for Democrats, leaving the party toiling to cobble together a budget plan that can win the support of mainstream Republicans in competitive districts like Molinaro’s and right-wing hard-liners who are pushing for the largest cuts possible.

With a razor-thin majority and Democrats solidly opposed to spending cuts on the scale that they are demanding, Republicans can afford no more than a few defections in their own ranks if they hope to pass a fiscal plan. They have already ruled out reductions to Medicare or Social Security, determined to insulate themselves and their most politically vulnerable members from accusations that they support slashing benefits for older Americans.

But even the seemingly easier steps, such as cuts in food assistance programs, could make for a politically fraught vote.

Top House Republicans have made increasing work requirements for participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP, one of the central elements of whatever spending blueprint they will ultimately release. It is a key tenet of conservative orthodoxy, and Republicans have framed it as a straightforward way to curtail what they believe is the nation’s out-of-control spending, arguing that it would also lift Americans out of poverty.

Republicans may soon be forced to put the matter to a vote. Speaker Kevin McCarthy told reporters last week that House Republicans could soon move on legislation modeled on a letter he sent to President Joe Biden last month outlining spending cuts his conference would seek, including “strengthening work requirements for those without dependents who can work.”

Rep. Dusty Johnson of South Dakota, a favorite of Republican leadership, earlier this year introduced legislation that would make able-bodied adults without dependents subject to work requirements until they are 65 years old, raising the current age from 49. It would also make it more difficult to obtain work requirement waivers, taking away the ability that states have to request that the mandate be relaxed if there are not enough jobs to provide recipients employment.

Proponents of an overhaul argue that states abuse the waivers, seeking them even when jobs are readily available, and the government is too lax about granting them.

“What most Republicans that I’m talking to are most interested in is eliminating a loophole that states are really egregiously using to ignore work requirements,” Johnson said in an interview. “Keeping in mind — and I think this has been misreported — no pregnant woman is subject to these requirements, nobody with young dependents at home is subject; nobody in areas of high unemployment.”

Johnson, who also grew up on food stamps and is now chair of the Republican Main Street Caucus, is considered one of the most influential mainstream conservatives in the House. But most of the lawmakers who have co-sponsored the legislation so far are either members of the hard-right Freedom Caucus or lawmakers from safe seats. Of the 38 Republicans who have signed on, only three represent competitive districts.

In the meantime, Democrats are already readying their attack advertisements. CJ Warnke, the communications director for House Democrats’ political action committee, accused Republicans of “continuing their extremist assault on families and children.”

“MAGA House Republicans are threatening to default and not pay their own bills, while simultaneously attacking SNAP benefits,” Warnke said, adding that Republicans were declaring that millions of Americans “should not have food on their tables.”

Republicans are well aware of the political peril that comes with the proposal. In 2018, when they controlled the House, the Senate and the White House, Republicans led by President Donald Trump tried repeatedly to add similar work requirements for food stamp recipients. The efforts failed, after a bipartisan group of lawmakers negotiating the twice-a-decade legislation deemed the move too politically toxic.

Five years later, the issue is just as charged.

Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., the chair of the Agriculture Committee who is responsible for shepherding the farm bill this year, has sounded more ambivalent than many of his colleagues about the urgency of stiffening work requirements.

Any dispute over the food stamp program could derail the farm bill, considered critical legislation to both political parties because it has huge implications for low-income families who rely on federal food assistance programs and the agriculture industry.

Thompson told reporters that he didn’t believe there was much fraud within the food stamp program.

“Principle one, quite frankly, is we have a responsibility to help people, families who are struggling financially to reach the next rung in the ladder of opportunity,” he said. “Some folks actually don’t recognize that we have work requirements.”

Still, Thompson conceded that there were “probably some improvements out there that we can make” to the program and said that it wasn’t “helpful” for lawmakers to suggest that the program go entirely unmodified.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the chair of the Judiciary Committee, suggested it was a battle the party should be willing to wage.

“If you’re going to live off the taxpayers and some kind of SNAP program and government resources, there should be a work requirement,” Jordan said. “This will be a big fight when we get to the farm bill.”

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