Senate Democrats, caught off guard by President Biden’s decision to tap two senior advisers to negotiate a debt ceiling deal with Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), are warning the president not to agree to anything that would hurt low-income Americans or undermine the battle against climate change.  

Democratic senators are increasingly concerned that any deal that Biden strikes with McCarthy will include major concessions to House conservatives that they would find hard to support. 

“From my perspective, I’m sharing my deep concerns with the people at the table,” said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) of her outreach to Biden and “his team” about the House Republican proposal to cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which McCarthy called a “red line” in the talks. 

What Democratic senators see as the growing likelihood that Biden will agree to cut tens of billions of dollars in nondefense domestic spending and make it easier to approve new fossil-fuel extraction projects has spurred some of them to urge the president to raise the debt limit unilaterally and circumvent Republican lawmakers altogether.  

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.)

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) addresses reporters after the weekly policy luncheon on Tuesday, April 18, 2023. (Annabelle Gordon)

A group of Senate Democrats including Sens. Tina Smith (Minn.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Ed Markey (Mass.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) signed onto a letter urging Biden to prepare to use the 14th Amendment to raise the debt limit in the absence of a deal with McCarthy.  

“Kevin McCarthy has two main requests: Attack ordinary, working families across America by cutting the foundations for health care, housing, education and good-paying jobs, and unleash fossil fuels on America. And both of those are absolutely unacceptable,” Merkley told reporters Wednesday.   

“I want the president to see that he has the support in the Senate to use the 14th Amendment,” he said. “He has support to say no to outrageous demands from the radical right.” 

Senate Democrats had urged Biden for months not to negotiate with McCarthy over legislation to raise the debt limit, arguing that the full faith and credit of the federal government shouldn’t be used as a bargaining chip.  

More on the debt ceiling from The Hill:

The president followed that advice for months, but he changed course this week by tapping two senior officials, Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young and counselor Steve Ricchetti to take the lead in negotiating with McCarthy’s deputy, Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.).  

Democratic senators acknowledged on Wednesday that Biden now certainly appears to be willing to negotiate with McCarthy on raising the debt limit, and they see that as bad news given the spending cuts included in the legislation the House passed last month to raise the debt limit.  

“Yes, he’s negotiating. I don’t know what else what you call it,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who had urged Biden not to let House Republicans use the debt limit as a hostage.  

Schatz warned that Democrats on Capitol Hill wouldn’t vote for a deal that includes even a quarter of the proposals included in the House Republicans’ Limit, Save, Grow Act, which would cut spending by $4.8 trillion over the next decade and greenlight new fossil-fuel projects around the country.  

“No, we’re not going to swallow that,” he said. “I think that it is preposterous that the Speaker of the House has woken up sometime this week and decided that work requirements for needy families was his hill to die on, that this is some high principle that is worth taking the country to default.” 

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii)

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) arrives to the Senate Chamber for a vote regarding a nomination on Wednesday, March 15, 2023. (Greg Nash)

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said he will oppose any effort by House Republicans to use debt limit legislation to roll back the clean energy tax breaks included in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act. 

“If it’s about rolling back the IRA, I’m going to fight against that for sure because the energy community tax credits, they really help Virginia, including some of the parts of Virginia that need the most economic help,” he said. 

“There are a number of things I’m hearing about that would cause me concerns,” he said. 

At the same time, conservative Republicans say if Biden does not agree to significant spending reforms and policy concessions, any debt limit deal that may emerge from talks with McCarthy will fall flat with members of the House Freedom Caucus.  

A small group of House conservatives hold significant leverage over McCarthy due to his narrow majority and because it only takes only one House lawmaker to offer a motion to vacate the Speaker’s chair. 

Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who has met with members of the House Freedom Caucus to help build GOP support for the House debt limit bill, warned that McCarthy doesn’t have much “wiggle room” to agree to a deal that falls well short of the reforms in that legislation.

Biden set off alarms among Democrats on Capitol Hill by suggesting over the weekend that he would be open to stricter work requirements for SNAP and TANF, though he took Medicaid off the table.  

“I voted for tougher aid programs that’s in the law now, but for Medicaid, it’s a different story. And so I’m waiting to hear what their exact proposal is,” he told reporters during a bike ride in Rehoboth Beach, Del. 

Biden walked back that comment Wednesday before departing for a trip to Japan. 

“I’m not going to accept any work requirements that go much beyond what is already — I voted years ago for the work requirements that exist. But, it’s possible there could be a few others, but not anything of any consequence,” he said. 

Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.)

Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) addresses reporters during a press conference on Thursday, February 9, 2023 to discuss reinstating paid sick days for rail workers. (Annabelle Gordon)

Biden plans to cut his trip short and return to Washington on Sunday to resume negotiations with McCarthy. 

Senior Democrats, however, argue adult recipients of federal food assistance already have to comply with work requirements, and penalties suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic are scheduled to go back into full effect.  

Stabenow said McCarthy wants to increase the age range for people who must meet work requirements for food subsidies.  

“From my perspective, it’s a non-starter and I’m very concerned about impacts on [the program]. The reality is we have work requirements starting again,” she said.  

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said she would also oppose stronger work requirements for SNAP benefits.