A top GOP lawmaker negotiating an elusive debt ceiling deal was adamant Friday that Republicans will not drop their demand for tougher work requirements as part of a final agreement — a major sticking point at the 11th hour of the talks. 

“Hell no, hell no!,” Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) told reporters outside the Capitol. 

“Not a chance. Not happening.”

The work requirements provision has emerged as perhaps the highest barrier to a deal between Republicans and the White House in recent days, when negotiators appear to have made progress on other issues pertaining to spending caps and timeline for extending the government’s borrowing authority. A failure of Congress to act would result in the first default in U.S. history, which could happen as early as June 1. 

Republicans believe adopting tougher work requirements for social benefit programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), will discourage recipients from abusing the payments and becoming reliant on government largesse, while helping understaffed businesses with a new pool of low-income workers. 

“Think about this for just a minute: Democrats right now are willing to default on the debt so they can continue making welfare payments for people that are refusing to work. And I’m talking about people that are without dependents, people that are able-bodied between 18 and 55,” Graves said.

“I mean, if you’re really going to fall on the sword for that, versus actually negotiating something that changes the trajectory of the country for spending?” he added. “I mean, that’s crazy to me that we’re even having this debate.”

Democrats have a decidedly different view, arguing social benefit programs already have work requirements in place, and making them more stringent would only hurt low-income people who depend on SNAP and other federal programs for basic necessities. 

Members of both the Black and Progressive caucuses — which, combined, make up a bulk of House Democrats — are fervently opposed to the tougher rules. And House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) has been firmly on their side, calling the Republicans’ proposal a “non-starter.” 

“Period. Full stop,” he told reporters recently

That position is colliding violently with that of Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who has said tougher work requirements are a red line for Republicans in the negotiations. 

Graves, along with Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), has been leading the talks for the GOP. On Friday, the pair huddled with McCarthy in the Speaker’s office in the Capitol for several hours in search of a breakthrough. 

When — or if — that breakthrough arrives remains an open question. 

“We had some progress that was made on some key issues,” Graves said. “But I want to be clear: We continue to have major issues that we have not bridged the gap on right now.”