Conservatives in Senate foiled on welfare cap

September 14, 1995|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- In a double-barreled defeat for conservative Republicans, the Senate voted yesterday to scuttle a proposal to deny additional cash benefits for welfare recipients who have more babies and rejected an amendment to deny cash to unwed teen mothers.

The provisions sparked intense debate as the Senate moved toward final passage of welfare reform.

The legislation, which Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas said would likely go to a final vote today, would engineer the most extensive welfare changes in six decades. It is a cornerstone of the GOP effort to transfer authority from the U.S. government to the states.

Twenty Republicans joined all 46 Democrats in voting 66-34 to defeat the "family cap" provision, which would forbid states from increasing welfare checks when women on welfare have more babies.

The vote enraged Republican Sens. Phil Gramm of Texas and Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina, the most ardent advocates of the provision. Mr. Faircloth vowed to oppose the final GOP-sponsored measure, and Mr. Gramm, a presidential contender, said he will work with conservative colleagues in the House to try to resurrect the family cap in a House-Senate conference on welfare reform.

"What we are doing is perpetuating a system which subsidizes illegitimacy, which gives cash bonuses to people who have more and more children on welfare," Mr. Gramm said.

Opponents of the family cap argued that the proposal would limit the ability of states to design their own welfare programs and stressed that there is no reliable evidence that a family cap would discourage women from having babies.

"If you believe that, you believe in the tooth fairy," said Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican who led the drive to eliminate the family cap. He also warned that it is not "illogical" that the provision could have prompted some pregnant welfare recipients to have abortions.

Later, the Senate voted 76-24 to knock down a Faircloth amendment to forbid states from giving cash benefits to teen mothers. Mr. Faircloth and other conservatives felt the provision was essential to fight out-of-wedlock births.

Mr. Dole originally opposed the family cap, but inserted a modified version last week to appease conservative members and powerful grass-roots groups such as the Christian Coalition.

He defended the idea during floor debate, arguing: "The crisis in our country must be faced; 30 percent of America's children today are born out of wedlock. Families must face more directly whether they are ready to care for the children they bring into this world."

By striking the two provisions, the Senate distanced itself from the House, which included both in the welfare package passed this year. It also dealt a blow to the Christian Coalition and other conservative groups.

Ralph Reed, the president of the Christian Coalition, said he expects the provisions to be reinserted when House and Senate members meet to work out their differences.

"For us, welfare reform isn't just a fiscal issue -- it's a moral issue," Mr. Reed said. He said reducing federal subsidies to women who have babies out of wedlock would strengthen the American family.

Republican and Democratic governors, many of whom thought the family cap amounted to unwanted federal micromanagement, cheered the vote, as did Roman Catholic bishops, who worried that the provision could increase abortions.

"In seeking to change the behavior of parents, these provisions hurt children, and some unborn children will pay with their lives," said Bishop John Ricard.

The Senate also split with the House by agreeing unanimously to compel states to maintain welfare spending at no less than 80 percent of current levels.

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