As the Senate began debate Monday on landmark legislation that would transfer control of the welfare system to the states, President Clinton and Democrats pushed to soften the blow of proposed benefit cuts and conservative Republicans pressed for tougher provisions to discourage out-of-wedlock births and punish recipients who fail to work.
The sweeping GOP welfare plan, if enacted as written, would cancel the 60-year federal guarantee of cash assistance to poor mothers, give states authority to design their own programs, and cut federal welfare spending 10 percent over seven years, by an average of $10 billion a year.
Welfare recipients would be required for the first time to work after two years on the rolls and their eligibility would be limited to five years in a lifetime.
The House already has passed a welfare reform package that calls for even bigger changes, and Democrats view the Senate debate as their last chance to limit the scope of the revisions. Clinton, who ran for office on a promise to dismantle the current welfare system, has given no indication that he would block the proposal if it reached his desk.
White House spokesman Mike McCurry said Monday that Clinton was “a long ways away from a veto” threat.
Clinton is working with Democrats, however, to persuade the Senate to add more funding for child care for welfare recipients forced to go to work and to require states to continue contributing their own money to their welfare programs. As written, states could simply take the federal money and use it for nearly any kind of welfare program they want.
On the Republican side, Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, principal challenger of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., for the GOP presidential nomination, and other conservative Republicans are fighting to toughen the GOP package with provisions to require states to deny cash benefits to teen moms and prevent them from increasing assistance when families on welfare have babies.
“I’m being hit by the White House on one side and my friend from Texas on the other,” Dole complained in a speech on the Senate floor. Noting that only 33 GOP senators were signed up in support of the measure, Dole said: “I can’t stand up here and say this is going to pass” without changes.
Making gestures of accommodation to both sides, Dole tightened the work requirement to appease the right and offered to negotiate with lawmakers from the left to provide more money for day care.
“We know there’s a problem with child care and we’re working on it,” Dole said in response to a question from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
In passionate speeches, conservatives argued the measure could fail in its objective of ending the cycle of poverty in America if it is not made more strict, while Democrats warned of dire consequences to children if it is not mollified.
“The failure to deal with this problem means the end of America as we know it,” Gramm said in a speech on the floor.
But Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., told reporters the measure “leaves 9 million children at risk of starvation, of depravation, of being in fear of greater homelessness and hunger in our country.”
Later in an emotional floor speech, Moseley-Braun said, “Let’s assume for a moment some child’s parents don’t meet the rules and get thrown off. What happens to the child? The children are left with no safety net whatsoever.”