Liberals are growing increasingly jittery about what concessions President Biden may make in debt ceiling negotiations with Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

While the party has been largely unified behind the White House’s strategy in the talks, more Democrats are voicing worries about what could be on the chopping block in order to keep the nation from defaulting on its debt. 

“I’m concerned because the president has, every now and then, moved to the right, if you will, to acquiesce to a so-called independent voter, and the American people want us to be bold and to stand firm,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) told reporters on Tuesday. “And to make sure we’re following through on our promises.”

His comments add to a growing chorus of Democrats who are showing uneasiness in recent days about where the bipartisan talks over the nation’s borrowing limit could be headed.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.)

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) leaves the House Chamber on Thursday, April 20, 2023 following the last votes of the week. (Greg Nash)

Biden spooked many in his base over the weekend when he appeared to open the door to stricter work requirements for certain federal assistance programs.

Pressed by reporters on whether he was open to the idea as part of bipartisan debt limit discussions, Biden acknowledged voting for “tougher aid programs that’s in the law now,” but said “for Medicaid, it’s a different story.”

“And so I’m waiting to hear what their exact proposal is,” Biden added. 

The White House spent Monday seemingly trying to walk back the remarks. But his comments have left some Democrats worried about where GOP-backed proposals to beef up work requirements for other programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as the food stamps program, fit in ongoing negotiations. 

McCarthy on Tuesday said including work requirements in the debt ceiling bill was a “red line” for him, while House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries called including them a “non-starter.”

“I’m deeply concerned about it and we’re just going to have to see. Hopefully, they’re not going to get to that point,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said of the talks when asked by reporters about whether changes to work requirements were a nonstarter.

“I remain very concerned about anything that hurts people that get a small amount of food assistance,” Stabenow, the No. 3 Senate Democrat, also said.

And Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) in a statement Tuesday echoed the concern.

“No one I’ve ever met wants to stay on SNAP for life. They need it to make ends meet. I sure didn’t come to Washington to take vital assistance away from working people at the same time big bank CEOs nearly crash the economy and get to jet off to Hawaii scot-free. I cannot in good conscience support a debt ceiling proposal that pushes people into poverty,” he said.

Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.)

Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) arrives to the Capitol for a series of votes on Tuesday, May 2, 2023. (Annabelle Gordon)

Asked Tuesday about the criticism that Biden may be giving away too many concessions, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said negotiations have been “as we see it, very productive.”

“This is a president who has been around the block a few times. He knows how to make deals. He knows how this works. And there’s no one more experienced in knowing how to get this done,” she added.

For months, the White House refused to negotiate over raising the debt ceiling. And Democrats showed a united front behind the president in rejecting calls by House Republicans to come to the bargaining table.

But as Congress stares down a potentially chaotic two-week stretch until June 1 — the earliest the Treasury Department warns the country risks a federal default — both sides are feeling the pressure to quickly strike a deal. 

More coverage of the debt ceiling from The Hill:

Democrats have panned a Republican bill passed by the House last month that would raise the debt ceiling — but not without a host of partisan spending cuts, ranging from measures to roll back parts of Biden’s signature economic bill that passed last year, changes to work requirements and putting a stop to the administration’s popular student loan decisions.

However, since talks began between the White House and House GOP leadership last week, there has been more chatter on Capitol Hill around more areas of potential compromise outlined in the House Republican bill, including proposals aimed at limiting government funding hashed out by lawmakers as part of the annual appropriations process over the next decade.

The House-passed bill would cap discretionary funding at fiscal 2022 levels, limiting annual spending growth at one percent annually — a proposal that has drawn swift opposition from top Democrats who say the measure could mean steep cuts for domestic programs.

Yet, in recent days, reports have surfaced that negotiators are considering a two-year deal that would involve proposals aimed at limiting spending while also raising the debt limit – which could be a tough lift in the divided Congress.  

While Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) signaled openness to The Hill last week to yanking back already approved coronavirus funding that Republicans say is not yet obligated, the key moderate voiced caution about potential caps. 

“I mean, there are some I think there’s some low hanging fruit that we can look at,” said Cuellar, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. “But start going into budget caps or all that, as an appropriator, I’m going to look at that very, carefully.”

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas)

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) is seen during the first day of the 118th session of Congress on Tuesday, January 3, 2023. (Greg Nash)

After his meeting with Biden on Tuesday, McCarthy signaled both sides had a ways to go in talks before striking a deal, telling reporters: “If this was where we were in February, I’d be very optimistic.”

“So, the structure of how we negotiate has improved. So it now gives you a better opportunity, even though we only have a few days to get it done,” McCarthy said. 

But the stakes are high as more experts warn of the potentially catastrophic consequences a default could hold for the economy.

Secretary Janet Yellen said in a speech on Tuesday that Americans are already seeing the “impacts of brinksmanship,” noting the changes seen in the bonds market in recent weeks.

“Investors have become more reluctant to hold government debt that matures in early June,” Yellen said at Independent Community Bankers of America 2023 Capital Summit. “And the impasse has already increased the debt burden to American taxpayers – as the leaders of the Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee said last week.”

But there are worries among Democrats that extend beyond the threat of a default.

“Republicans want to cut across the board programs for children, the elderly … the sick, the poor. Unacceptable. Period,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told reporters. 

He also punted a question about his trust in the White House’s strategy amid talks, instead saying they’ll “find out more” after Tuesday’s meeting.