WASHINGTON — The phone rang while Representative Jim McGovern was enjoying time with his family on the evening of Mother’s Day.
“We have a problem,” Caitlin Hodgkins, his policy director, told him.
She said President Biden had indicated to reporters that he’d consider additional work requirements on food assistance programs as part of negotiations to raise the debt limit.
The Worcester Democrat, who has made combating hunger his life’s work, immediately sprang into action.
McGovern asked his staff to get him the number for Steve Ricchetti, Biden’s senior aide and key negotiator. The next morning, he texted Ricchetti to emphasize “growing concern” over the president’s comments and the importance of resisting new requirements he said would unduly burden society’s most vulnerable members. McGovern and his staff were in touch with activists and other lawmakers and their staffs about how to interpret the president’s comments and what could be done in response.
By Monday evening, Biden sent a clarifying tweet that Republicans wanted to “put a million older adults at risk of . . . going hungry” instead of making the wealthy “pay their fair share.” McGovern quickly retweeted it with the comment, ”YES! Thank you @POTUS.”
But the fight was far from over.
As negotiations between Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy have intensified and the June 1 deadline when the country could face a catastrophic default draws near, McGovern and his fellow House Democrats have scrambled to ensure that their priorities aren’t tossed aside. Those efforts have increased as Biden has made cryptic public statements about what he might be willing to accept in a deal.
Republicans have pushed for government spending cuts, additional requirements on a number of federal entitlement programs, easing of the permitting process for energy projects, and a clawback of unspent COVID funds. Congressional Democrats have opposed most of those demands, with particularly strong opposition to the work requirements and funding cuts.
No Democrat may be working as hard as McGovern to oppose additional hurdles for recipients of federal food assistance.
He has been on the phone with the White House and colleagues regularly, he said, and his office detailed how he’s been working behind the scenes and publicly to hold the line.
“I love the president and I’m trusting him,” McGovern said. “But I’ve been around here long enough to know that oftentimes, the most vulnerable people are the ones who get screwed. And I’m trying to make sure that we don’t fall into that trap again.”
But the frenzy of Democratic efforts also comes with a realization that it may not be enough.
“We think work requirements are very important,” said North Carolina Representative Patrick McHenry, one of McCarthy’s top lieutenants. “And important components for our social safety net to motivate people into the workforce. . . . We think that is a fundamental part of any deal to be had.”
McGovern and his peers’ push to prevent that is a case study in the art of Washington maneuvering, but also one with high stakes.
More than 1 million, or roughly one in seven, Massachusetts residents were helped by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in fiscal year 2022, according to the left-leaning think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Nationally, there are more than 41 million participants in the program, or roughly one in eight Americans. Food insecurity is only increasing, experts say, as SNAP participants have seen COVID-era increases in their benefits expire.
Republicans have long sought to reduce spending on federal benefit programs including SNAP, often by adding new work requirements on top of many that already exist. In the debt limit negotiations, they’re pushing to increase the age of able-bodied adults without dependents required to work from 49 to 55.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that could jeopardize the benefits of 15,000 Massachusetts residents and 1 million people nationwide. Republicans argue such requirements encourage Americans to work and cut down on freeloaders. But Democrats and supporters of the programs said data show that most SNAP recipients already work and those who don’t have significant reasons why. Past efforts to impose work requirements have only increased Americans’ hardships without increasing employment, studies have shown, as they tend to hit already vulnerable people hardest or add arduous enrollment requirements that cause benefits to lapse.
Democrats have traditionally had better leverage to oppose such additional requirements during negotiations on annual government funding and the once-every-five-years farm bill that includes nutrition programs. But the threat of breaching the debt limit has upset that calculus.
Biden has abandoned his long-staked position that he would not negotiate over raising the debt limit, allowing House Republicans to demand concessions in exchange for an increase. Republicans know that faced with default as an alternative, Democrats may have to swallow many of those concessions.
“We’re going to be in a bit of a Sophie’s choice, and everyone is coming to terms with that,” said one Democratic aide granted anonymity to discuss the sensitive dynamic. “We just don’t know the terms of that choice.”
House Democrats have been scrambling behind the scenes to try to get Biden to hold the line. McGovern has been central to that effort, calling the White House and House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York frequently, e-mailing fact checks on Republicans’ statements about SNAP to every House office, giving speeches opposing the changes, and coordinating with outside groups on the messaging battles.
McGovern even spoke at length with a senior administration official he ran into at the recent engagement party for former House majority leader Steny Hoyer to make the case on SNAP work requirements.
McGovern has been joined in the effort by members of some large groups of Democratic lawmakers. House progressives and the Congressional Black Caucus have been engaged as well, putting out vote counts making clear that their membership opposes additional work requirements. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus also was polling its members this week, with many previously voicing concern over the idea, said California Representative Nanette Diaz Barragán, the caucus chair.
Publicizing the counts signals to Biden that if he needs significant Democratic support in the House to pass a debt limit increase, work requirements would be a nonstarter.
“I would not characterize it as a lack of trust,” said New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an influential progressive. “I think, actually, what we are very invested in is in supporting the president in defending working families, defending veterans’ health care, defending Social Security, food benefits, and we’re very closely aligned with the president in supporting him in that effort.”
Representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, the House Democratic whip, has also been key. Her job is to know how members would vote on legislation and she’s doing so on this issue, an aide said. Clark also has been working with other House leaders to spread the message about the potential impacts of Republican proposals.
“Let’s pull back the curtain on what Republicans really mean when they say ‘work requirements,’ ” Clark said in a statement. “They want to force devastating cuts on hungry seniors, veterans, and families. . . . They want the neediest Americans to suffer while the rich get richer. It’s cruel.”
Some moderates, however, indicated they may be open to voting for a deal even if they don’t like it.
“I don’t want to see the health care cut and I don’t want to see nutrition programs cut,” said Representative Richard Neal. “I’ve expressed my positions with the Democratic leadership, and we want a reasonable deal. But an emphasis on deal means you don’t get everything you want. . . . Why don’t we give the president some room here on our side?”
Jim Puzzanghera of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Tal Kopan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @talkopan.