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McCarthy names his ‘red line’ as GOP debt ceiling crises advances

In his debt ceiling crisis, Kevin McCarthy has prioritized an unnecessary policy goal with a poor track record, and which has drawn bipartisan criticisms.


With a debt ceiling deadline looming, President Joe Biden hosted an Oval Office meeting last week with Congress’ bipartisan leadership. Participants didn’t agree on much, but there was common ground on one key point: The discussion didn’t go well.

Almost immediately after the meeting wrapped up, the conversation was described as “contentious” and “tense.” Biden lamented the fact that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, in particular, was “occasionally ... a little over the top.”

In contrast, the follow-up discussion yesterday appears to have been at least marginally more constructive: The House Republican leader told reporters after the meeting that the parties remain “far apart” but that “it is possible to get a deal by the end of the week.”

To that end, we’ve apparently reached the stage at which the major players have appointed proxies to start tackling specific details. As NBC News reported, the president has tapped Budget Director Shalanda Young and White House adviser Steve Ricchetti to take the lead on Democrats’ behalf, while Republican Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana and members of McCarthy’s staff will represent the GOP.

I won’t pretend to know what’s likely to happen next, but the House speaker took a new and provocative step yesterday, identifying what he considers to be a “red line” on which he will not budge. McCarthy no doubt realizes that Democrats will never simply accept the entirety of the ransom note recently approved by House Republicans, but he appears to be prioritizing one far-right goal above all others: work requirements for federal aid. NBC News reported:

The debt ceiling bill House Republicans passed last month, which was negotiated between GOP members and approved along party lines, would expand work requirements for some federal aid programs, including Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, a program that provides grocery aid.

Defending his “red line” on work requirements, McCarthy told reporters ahead of his White House meeting, “The public wants it. Both parties want it, the idea that [Democrats] want to put us into a default because they will not work with us on that is ludicrous to me.”

For now, let’s brush past the fact that there’s little meaningful evidence to suggest this policy is a public priority with support from “both parties.” Let’s also not dwell on the fact that if McCarthy thinks this is such a great idea, he and his party are welcome to pursue the goal through the U.S. legislative system — instead of an extortion plot in which Republicans threaten to impose an economic catastrophe on the country.

Let’s instead focus on three key details that the House speaker really ought to be aware of.

New work requirements have a lousy track record: When Arkansas experimented with this approach, low-income families found it difficult to navigate the bureaucracy and keep up with paperwork and documentation requirements. The results benefited no one and ended up punishing struggling families. Repeating these mistakes at the national level is a bad idea.

New work requirements are unnecessary: As David Firestone explained in a New York Times piece today, Republicans “persistently ignore the little-mentioned fact that a vast majority of the people receiving these benefits are already working or are unable to work. In 2021, 61 percent of the 25 million people on Medicaid were working in full- or part-time jobs. The rest were retired or disabled or taking care of small children or in school. Similarly, most food-stamp recipients work, and able-bodied adults younger than 50 are required to work in order to get more than three months of benefits in three years, unless they are taking care of children.”

The House speaker's top goal, in other words, appears to be a solution in search of a problem.

New work requirements might derail a deal: McCarthy might be under the impression that his “red line” enjoys broad, bipartisan support, but there’s quite a bit of evidence to the contrary. My MSNBC colleague Ja’han Jones had a great report yesterday on Democratic opposition to new work requirements — given the circumstances, if there’s a final deal, it’s going to need a whole lot of Democratic votes — while Politico noted that “it’s a bit unclear if McCarthy even has the full backing of his own conference on this one.” The report added, “In recent months, some Republicans in competitive seats have expressed reluctance to go there on work requirements.”

So, let’s take stock. Thanks to a Republican-imposed extortion scheme, the United States is facing a possible default, and the deadline might come as early as two weeks from tomorrow. Congress’ top GOP official, apparently convinced that low-income Americans aren’t doing enough paperwork, has prioritized an unnecessary policy goal, which has a poor track record, and which has drawn bipartisan criticisms.

Watch this space.