Democrats introduce welfare reform program

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

WASHINGTON -- Senate Democratic leaders unveiled their own welfare legislation yesterday -- offering variations on some Republican proposals, including a five-year limit on benefits, heavy emphasis on work and greater flexibility for states.

But, unlike GOP bills, the Democratic measure would maintain the 60-year government guarantee that anyone who qualifies for welfare benefits can get them, regardless of the cost to the government. And it would prohibit states from dropping benefits below 1988 levels.

The Republicans -- in a bill adopted by the House and another approved by the Senate Finance Committee -- would end the entitlement concept and limit federal welfare spending to or near current levels for five years.

They would turn the federal money over to the states in the form of block grants, giving states wide latitude to design their own programs and even allowing them to sharply reduce or eliminate use of their own funds on welfare.

"Their reform is Tinkertoy," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, one of the authors of the Democratic bill. "They take a whole list of cliches, knit them together and call it a program. What we have here is real reform."

The Democrats' bill, she said, focuses on getting people into jobs and keeping them there by providing the assistance they need, including medical care and child care, to work.

Added Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Democratic leader, "The Republican plan is . . . about cutting the budget, removing the federal government from welfare, and dumping responsibility for welfare onto the states."

Senate floor debate on welfare could begin as early as next week, aides said, even though the GOP plan is still being assembled.

Democratic leaders asked Republicans to join them in crafting a bi-partisan bill. But there was no indication that the GOP was interested.

"We need each other to get the bill that's going to pass and be signed into law," said Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana, suggesting that Republicans, acting alone, would be thwarted by a Democratic filibuster and, if that failed, a presidential veto.

President Clinton has indicated he would veto a bill that did not meet his broad objectives of putting recipients to work and protecting children, but he has not been specific about the bottom line that he would accept.

Donna E. Shalala, secretary of health and human services, welcomed the Democratic bill, praising its work requirements and saying, "It also promotes parental responsibility, protects children, strengthens child support enforcement, and gives states the flexibility and the tools they need to succeed."

But there were indications that Democratic Party cohesion was a bit frayed.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, considered the Senate's foremost welfare expert, was not among the half-dozen senators appearing at a news conference to promote the legislation. The New York Democrat has been harshly critical of the GOP legislation and has introduced his own bill, which is not nearly as sweeping as the Democratic bill.

Senate aides hinted that the leadership bill is too restrictive to suit Mr. Moynihan.

The bill's authors had no estimates of the cost of the legislation but insisted that money would be saved -- some to be plowed back into the jobs programs and some to be put toward deficit reduction. The Finance Committee's bill would save $31 billion over five years.

The Democrats' bill would limit welfare recipients to five years on the rolls -- with some exceptions -- and would reduce benefits for parents who refuse to get into a work or community service program after two years. Next year, it would require 30 percent of able-bodied recipients to work, a figure that would increase to 50 percent in five years.

The bill provides a financial bonus for states that exceed the jobs target, a feature that President Clinton praised in a speech in Baltimore on Tuesday. Like the GOP bills, it contains a penalty for states that fail to meet their goals.

Republican bills also require 50 percent work participation. Democrats have charged that the House bill is so shot through with loopholes that it is "weak on work."

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