Welfare reform moves closer to House vote

March 09, 1995|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- House Republicans moved a step closer yesterday toward passing sweeping welfare reform legislation that would save nearly $60 billion over five years.

At the same time, the key Senate Finance Committee took up the issue, and Republicans and Democrats predicted that Congress would pass a welfare reform bill this year.

The House Ways and Means Committee gave final approval to a bill that would make radical changes in Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the main welfare program, and in dozens of other federal programs, promising savings of nearly $35 billion over five years. Committee Democrats had blocked a final vote Friday by insisting that they have the legislative language in front of them.

Earlier yesterday, working on a second part of the welfare reform effort, the House Agriculture Committee approved curtailment of the food stamp program. That would save $16 billion over five years.

Two weeks ago, the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee finished work on a bill to save $7.3 billion by turning school lunch and other nutrition programs over to the states in the form of block grants -- cash payments that states can use as they please.

The three pieces of legislation will be combined in one welfare bill that Republicans hope to bring to the full House by the end of the month. Their effort is part of the the House Republicans' "Contract with America," which promised House votes on 10 legislative proposals in the first 100 days of the current Congress.

The bill is expected to pass the House virtually intact. But there is widespread speculation that the Senate will make substantial changes. Democrats have attacked the House bill as being "cruel to children and weak on work," and have expressed hope that the Senate will soften the House Republicans' approach.

"There are no guarantees in the Senate," acknowledged Rep. David Camp, a Michigan Republican. "We have to be prepared for uphill sledding in the Senate."

Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole said, "There may be a little different approach on the Senate side."

In a comment reminiscent of what House Democrats said during the Ways and Means Committee battle over welfare, the Kansas Republican added: "Our first concern must be the welfare of the children involved. They're not the instigators [of problems in the welfare system]. They are the victims."

Several members of the Senate Finance Committee said they expect Congress to send President Clinton a welfare bill this year.

"I'd be surprised if one wasn't" passed, said the committee's chairman, Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon, who yesterday held the first of nine welfare hearings set for this month.

"I think there's a lot of steam" behind the push for a welfare bill this year, said Sen. David Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat.

Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, was less optimistic. He raised the possibility earlier this week that the bill could be delayed until 1996 by a legislative logjam.

"It could be that it'll have to go over into next year," he told reporters. The Senate leadership, he said, has not yet planned the 1995 legislative schedule.

Some of the most sweeping aspects of the House bill will come before Mr. Packwood's Senate committee. They include the transformation of AFDC and about four dozen other programs into block grants to states, denial of welfare payments to unwed teen-age mothers, a five-year limit on welfare payments, new work requirements, the barring of most aliens from welfare, and the removal of 120,000 alcoholics and drug addicts and 225,000 children from the disability rolls of the Social Security Administration's Supplemental Security Income program.

Most fundamentally, the House Republicans would end the 60-year-old New Deal concept of entitlement -- under which anyone who qualifies for benefits can receive them, regardless of the cost to the government.

Mr. Clinton raised the threat this week, more explicitly than he has in the past, that he would veto the bill if the House version isn't changed to his liking.

Mr. Lott expressed concern about Mr. Clinton's criticism of the House Republicans' work provisions. Those provisions were strengthened last week in response to Democratic criticism.

"If we're not careful, we'll open an opportunity for him to seize the high ground on that," Mr. Lott said.

Mr. Packwood said the "philosophical keystone" of his committee's work on welfare would hinge on whether it follows the House lead on block grants or preserves the entitlement concept of welfare.

Preferring to take a wait-and-see attitude, the Oregon Republican declined to state his own preference or to join in the speculation by Democrats and Republicans that the Senate would make major changes in the House bill.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, the senior Democrat on the Finance Committee, wasn't so cautious.

He called the House legislation "draconian" and "incoherent."

"I hope the Senate . . . will give some thought" to the legislation, he said.

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