WASHINGTON -- A dramatic overhaul of the welfare system, shaped in the House by the Republican "Contract with America," is likely to undergo some retooling in the Senate -- but many of the fundamental changes that have sparked an acrimonious national debate may well be retained.
"I think, by and large, this bill's going to be passed intact," House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican, predicted in a television interview yesterday. "I would say the essential spirit of the bill will be in the final package as we see it now."
While critics of the House bill hope that Senate GOP moderates and Democrats will block approval of such a sweeping measure, the political momentum is on the side of major revisions in the decades-old system.
No one in either party is arguing on behalf of the status quo.
Senate action is still months away. But like the House, which passed its version of the welfare measure Friday, the GOP-controlled Senate is expected to sharply restrict welfare benefits, limit the time a recipient may stay on the rolls and turn most assistance programs over to the states. Federal funding would continue, though at a reduced rate.
In addition, a requirement that recipients take jobs to continue receiving benefits may be even tighter than that prescribed by the House.
However, help for working mothers -- such as child care and health benefits -- may be more generous than in the House measure, in part to show "conservatism with a compassionate face," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican.
Less clear is whether the Senate will join the House in scrapping the concept of an automatic entitlement to cash benefits for all who meet the eligibility standards -- a safety net for the poor that dates back to the 1930s.
"My guess is some of what we do on welfare reform will be weaker than the House, but some may be stronger," said Senate Majority Whip Trent Lott of Mississippi. "I just hope we don't wimp out."
The legislation, which is not expected to reach the Senate floor until midsummer at the earliest, is being driven by a bipartisan consensus in favor of redesigning welfare, combined with the desire for budget savings and political jockeying in the presidential sweepstakes.
There is some chance that the welfare legislation, which Finance Committee Chairman Bob Packwood, an Oregon Republican, predicted would be the "most contentious" issue facing the Senate this year, might unravel as it makes its way through the legislative process.
Senate Democrats are sure to resist what they describe as needlessly harsh elements of the Republican welfare bill -- such as denial of benefits to unwed teen-age mothers and elimination of job training programs.
Democrats to resist
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland said she and her fellow Democrats plan to offer their own proposal and, if necessary, use the threat of a filibuster to make sure their views are taken seriously.
What's more, Mr. Clinton holds veto power over the measure that would almost certainly kill it. It's unlikely that the Republicans could get the two-thirds vote necessary to override a veto if the issue breaks down along partisan lines.
Yet, Mr. Clinton and his party are clearly unwilling to draw firm lines in the sand at this point.
"We want a bill that is tough on work and that is fair to children," said White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta, who appeared after Mr. Armey on NBC's "Meet the Press."
"The bill that passed, frankly, on the House side is weak on work requirements and very tough on children. We want to basically reverse those priorities."
Mr. Clinton, who promised during his 1992 campaign to "end welfare as we know it," wants to avoid what one prospective Republican challenger says will be an attempt to embarrass the president on the issue.
"We're going to pass the toughest bill we can, then leave it up to him to decide whether or not he's going to go along with the wishes of the American people," said Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican and a candidate for the 1996 GOP presidential nomination.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, another GOP presidential contender, has backed off his January pronouncements that key elements of the House bill -- barring benefits for legal aliens and single mothers under 18 -- are "not going to happen."
Mr. Dole now says that he and his GOP colleagues are inclined to leave such matters to the discretion of governors, who are "closer to the people."
"I would be astonished if the Senate failed to produce a welfare reform bill this year that is very conservative and very tough," said Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an advocacy group for the poor.
"I expect the Senate version to be more moderate, but only in comparison to the House bill, which I consider really extreme."
The House measure