Work requirements for federal food aid recipients have emerged as a last straw in negotiations over the looming debt crisis, even as President Joe Biden said Friday that a deal is “very close.”

Biden’s optimism came as the deadline for a potentially disastrous default was pushed back to June 5 and appeared likely to drag out negotiations between White House and Republicans over raising the debt ceiling to another frustrating week. Both sides have suggested that one of the main issues is a GOP effort to increase work requirements for recipients of food stamps and other federal assistance programs, a longtime Republican goal democrats has strongly opposed.

Even as they moved closer to a framework for spending, each side seemed to dig into work demands. White House spokesman Andrew Bates called the GOP’s proposals “cruel and senseless” and said Biden and Democrats would oppose them.

Louisiana Rep. Garret Graves, one of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s negotiators, was blunt when asked if Republicans could budge on the issue: “Hell, no, not a chance,” he said.

The later “X date,” set out in a letter from Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, put the risk of a devastating default four days beyond a previous estimate. Still, Americans and the world watched with trepidation as the negotiating brinkmanship could throw the U.S. economy into chaos and undermine the world’s confidence in the nation’s leadership.

Still, Biden was upbeat heading into Memorial Day weekend at Camp David, declaring, “It’s very close, and I’m optimistic.”

As Capitol Hill Republicans spoke to Biden’s White House team, the president said: “There’s a negotiation going on. I’m hopeful we’ll know tonight if we’re going to be able to have a deal.” But an agreement had not been reached when McCarthy left the Capitol Friday night.

In a blunt warning, Yellen said failure to act before the new date would “cause severe hardship to American families, damage our global leadership position and raise questions about our ability to defend our national security interests.”

Worried retirees and others were already making contingency plans for missed checks, with the next Social Security payments due next week.

Biden and Republican McCarthy have appeared to be on the verge of cutting back on a two-year budget-reduction deal that would also extend the debt limit to 2025 after the next presidential election.

But talks over the proposed work requirements for recipients of Medicaid, food stamps and other assistance programs appeared to have stalled Friday afternoon.

Biden has said Medicaid work requirements would be a non-starter. But he initially seemed open to possible changes to food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

The Republican proposal would save $11 billion over 10 years by raising the maximum age for existing standards that require able-bodied adults not living with dependents to work or participate in educational programs. While current law applies these standards to recipients under 50, the House bill would raise the age to include adults 55 and under. The GOP proposal would also reduce the number of exemptions states can grant to certain recipients subject to these requirements.

Biden’s stance on SNAP work requirements appeared to have hardened Friday, when spokesman Bates said House Republicans are threatening to trigger an unprecedented recession “unless they can take food out of the mouths of hungry Americans.”

Any deal would have to be a political compromise, with support from both Democrats and Republicans to pass the divided Congress. Failure to raise the debt ceiling, now $31 trillion, to pay the nation’s bills would send shockwaves through the U.S. and global economy.

But many of the hard-right Trump-aligned Republicans in Congress have long been skeptical of the Treasury Department’s projections, and they are pushing McCarthy to hold off.

As talks drifted into yet another late night, one of the negotiators called Rep. Patrick McHenry, RN.C., Biden’s comments “a hopeful sign.” But he also warned that there are still “sticky points” that stand in the way of a final deal.

While the contours of the deal have taken shape to cut spending for 2024 and impose a 1% cap on spending growth for 2025, the two sides remain stuck on different provisions.

House Republicans had pushed the issue to the limit, showing risky political bravado as they left town for the Memorial Day weekend. Lawmakers are tentatively not expected to be back at work until Tuesday, but now their return is uncertain.

Weeks of negotiations between Republicans and the White House have failed to produce a deal — in part because the Biden administration resisted negotiating with McCarthy on the debt limit, arguing that the country’s full faith and credit should not be used as leverage to extract other partisan priorities.

“We have to spend less than we spent last year. That’s the starting point,” McCarthy said.

One idea is to set the top-line budget numbers but then add a “snap-back” provision to enforce cuts if Congress, during its annual appropriations process, can’t meet the new targets.

Lawmakers are almost certain to get back about $30 billion in unused Covid-19 funds now that the pandemic emergency has officially been lifted.

McCarthy has promised lawmakers he will follow the rule of posting a bill for 72 hours before voting. The Democratic-held Senate has vowed to move quickly to send the package to Biden’s desk.


Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick, Stephen Groves, Farnoush Amiri, Seung Min Kim and Kevin Freking and video journalist Rick Gentilo contributed to this report.