Gingrich retreating on welfare

January 10, 1995|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- House Speaker Newt Gingrich, insisting that Republicans should not be held to the details of their "Contract with America," said yesterday that he had changed his mind about denying welfare benefits to legal immigrants.

The controversial ban, which would have affected many of the country's 8.8 million legal immigrants, was written into the contract's welfare plan. But Mr. Gingrich says it was written before Republicans knew they would be in power and able to find more creative solutions.

The Republican Party is engaged in a complex dialogue with the American people, Mr. Gingrich told reporters. "It changes over time," he said. "We are not going to get trapped into doing something dumb just so you all can say we're consistent."

Mr. Gingrich, who praised legal immigration as having given America "many of its most dynamic and creative citizens," said the GOP was "in a very difficult position last year" when this position was proposed.

"We didn't have access to the resources," he said. "We were trying to find the least destructive way to pay for a very, very important program."

Also, he said such action is no longer necessary to raise $20 billion for welfare reform, because GOP governors have agreed to accept a five-year freeze on federal money in exchange for state control of the welfare system. That would save an estimated $40 billion, he said.

But Rep. E. Clay Shaw, a Florida Republican who is author of the legal immigrant proposal and chairman of the subcommittee overseeing welfare reform, said Mr. Gingrich had not spoken to him about his concerns.

Mr. Shaw said he was open to discussion, but "I question, if

someone is still pledging allegiance to another country, why that our responsibility."

The proposal -- which would have denied access to 60 different social programs -- was "out of moral bounds" for this country, said Michael Fix, an immigration expert at the Urban Institute.

People have been accepted as members of our society not on the basis of citizenship, he said, but on legal admission to the country and the intent to make a life here. "Citizenship determines your place in the political community, and that's just about it in this country," Mr. Fix said.

Of the 10 provisions of the House Republican contract, a campaign document that evolved into a blueprint for GOP reform, the welfare reform plan has undergone the most transformation.

Changes already

Those changes range from the minor -- the deletion of the controversial suggestion of orphanages for the children of teen mothers -- to the sweeping assumption that states should lead the way in reforming the welfare system.

Republican leaders in Congress met with 15 GOP governors Friday and agreed to let them try their own versions of welfare reform.

Some members of Congress, such as Mr. Shaw, still insist on some specific rules that would penalize states for failure to meet federal goals concerning putting welfare recipients to work and cutting the incidence of births to unwed teens.

Mr. Gingrich said he would want few requirements other than an annual audit of a state's performance.

That would result in welfare programs that vary widely from state to state, he said, "but it would mean we could then study and see which one works, rather than have a 10-year debate in Washington while doing nothing."

The Republican Party has been split over denying aid to legal immigrants, especially after California's passage of Proposition 187, which denies a range of social services and education to illegal immigrants.

That law, now being challenged in court, was attacked by some top GOP leaders as unconstitutional and un-American.

The issue is even more controversial when dealing with legal immigrants. The provision would have exempted those over age 75 and refugees in the country less than six years, and would have allowed the immigrants a year to become citizens.

In the past few weeks, GOP congressional staffers have been looking for a compromise based on recent proposals by a bipartisan commission on immigration. The commission, headed by former Rep. Barbara Jordan, a Texas Democrat, denounced any plans to cut benefits to legal immigrants.

Instead, the commission said, the government should try enforcing the contracts that sponsors sign promising to be financially responsible for legal immigrants.

Mr. Gingrich endorsed that concept yesterday, saying "the sponsor should take a fairly significant responsibility, whether that's three years or five years."

The controversy over the orphanage proposal ended a lot more quietly: The word was simply taken out of the legislation.

Although listed as just an option for states, the suggestion was used by critics to attack the GOP plan as heartless and costly. Some Republicans also criticized it; many more just wanted the issue to go away.

But Mr. Gingrich kept defending it and even served as host to a TV broadcast showing of "Boys Town," the 1938 film about the Nebraska orphanage.

Now, the GOP plan includes as options "residential care for mothers and babies."

That still could include orphanages, reasoned one GOP staffer who worked on the wording. "We used the 1990s language, not the 1890s language."

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