WASHINGTON -- Signaling the end of a 60-year federal guarantee of aid to the poor, President Clinton announced yesterday that he would sign landmark legislation to shift responsibility for welfare to the states.
The bill passed the House hours later by a vote of 328-101, more lopsided than had been expected before Clinton's announcement.
Senate approval is expected today.
The president said he believes the bill he is signing is flawed but much improved over two earlier, more stringent Republican versions that he vetoed -- and far preferable to the existing welfare program and its "cycle of dependency."
"A long time ago, I concluded that the current welfare system undermines the basic values of work, responsibility and family," Clinton said.
"When I ran for president four years ago, I pledged to end welfare as we know it. Today, the Congress will vote on legislation that gives us a chance to live up to that promise."
The legislation would:
* Limit lifetime welfare assistance to five years and require able-bodied adults to work after two years, although states could except up to 20 percent of recipients from this requirement on a "hardship" basis.
* Replace the current Aid to Families with Dependent Children system with lump sums to the states, which could set up their own eligibility requirements.
* Allow states to deny Medicaid to adults who lose welfare benefits because of a failure to meet work requirements.
* Tighten restrictions on children's eligibility for Supplemental Security Income disability benefits to try to weed out abuses by those who are not truly disabled.
* Require states to deduct benefits from welfare mothers who refuse to help identify the fathers.
* Bar legal immigrants from receiving food stamps or Social Security benefits unless they are military veterans or have lived in the United States for 10 years, and allow states to deny Medicaid benefits to those who immigrate after the bill is enacted.
Noting that when the current system was enacted 61 years ago, a typical recipient was an unskilled widow of a miner killed in an industrial accident -- not generations of never-married women -- Clinton said it was high time for change.
"Today, we have an historic opportunity to make welfare what it was meant to be: a second chance, not a way of life," he said.
Public wants this change
Although Clinton's decision was denounced by liberals and his motives were derided by Republicans, the political calculations by both sides were the same: The public wants this change, and in agreeing to it, Clinton has boosted his already high-flying re-election campaign against Bob Dole.
"It's bad news for Bob Dole," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat.
"I think this president will do anything to get re-elected, including eliminating entitlements," said Rep. Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican.
Republicans, including Dole, complained that the president had come on board now purely for political reasons.
But they acknowledged that this move is a winner for the president.
"We knew, when it got close to the election, that this president would choose political expediency as he always does," said Rep. Tillie Fowler, a Florida Republican.
Dole himself displayed a biting wit, quipping, "The first 100 days of the Dole administration have begun 97 days before the election."
"While I cannot applaud the rationale behind the president's swiftly changing positions, I commend him for finally climbing on board the Dole welfare reform proposal," he said.
"Now, as the election nears, the president has finally chosen to endorse our welfare reform bill -- a bill so similar to legislation that he has already twice vetoed."
Dole, the former Senate majority leader, was free to take credit for the bill, just as the president did.
But both sides appeared to recognize that this issue could be used effectively by Dole only if the president had heeded liberals in his own party and vetoed the bill.
The mood at Dole headquarters after the president's announcement was one of gloom.
At the White House, by contrast, even one of the bill's most
ardent opponents, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, put on a smiling face as she briefed reporters on some provisions in the bill that soften its impact on the poor -- and that were added by the administration.
Despite his famous 1992 pledge to "end welfare as we know it," Clinton's record on welfare reform was perceived by Republicans as his Achilles' heel as he ran for re-election.
Slow to act
After assuming office, his administration took 17 months to propose a welfare reform plan -- a version supported by neither congressional Republicans nor Democrats.
After Republicans took over Congress in 1994, they made welfare reform a top priority.
fTC Last winter, however, Clinton twice vetoed their version, saying it would take too much money out of the welfare system and would prove a hardship to poor children.