WASHINGTON -- Although President Clinton last wee renewed his pledge to "end welfare as we know it," aides drafting his plan acknowledge that the effort could be expensive and might even force him to scale back or delay action nationwide.
The centerpiece of Mr. Clinton's plan is his pledge to impose a two-year limit on welfare benefits. It was one of his most popular campaign themes and holds an allure for the centrist and conservative legislators he is now courting, since it sounds like a tough-talking, economizing move.
But the architects of Mr. Clinton's plan have something very different in mind, a program with costly new services. To justify time limits, the working group wants to expand programs that provide child care, health care and job training, and that may even offer some welfare recipients government jobs.
Though the planners hope to enhance the lives of the 5 million families that receive welfare, they recognize something that much of the public does not: it is cheaper in the short run just to keep mailing public assistance checks.
"There is a fundamental dilemma, but this has not been sold as a way of balancing the federal budget," said David T. Ellwood, an assistant secretary of health and human services, who is serving as co-chairman of the working group. "Nobody's talking about this as a way of saving money. We're talking about spending money."
But the price tag of a bold plan may take many people by surprise.
"I fear that time limits mean very different things to people in the administration and to their audience, the public at large," said Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, through which the legislation must pass.
Mr. Ellwood introduced the idea of time limits in his book, "Poor Support" (Basic Books, 1988), written while he was a Harvard professor. He then advocated time limits as part of a broad expansion of services, including health care and the creation of some government jobs. His book estimated that this could cost an additional $30 billion a year.
No one is now contemplating such sums. In a December policy paper, Mr. Ellwood called for imposing time limits in only a modest number of states, saying a gradual phase-in made more sense given the budget deficit and the need for states to adjust.
Mr. Ellwood wrote that a phase-in plan is consistent with the president's call for bold action. In the interview, he stressed that the group was still focused on "fundamental transformations of the system."