Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, clashed pointedly Saturday over welfare in a display of the Republican split that has stalled the legislation in a Senate increasingly roiled by presidential politics.
In an address to the closing day of the Republican National Committee’s summer meeting in Philadelphia, Dole threatened to keep the chamber in session all August if necessary to pass a welfare bill that would give states more control over their programs. To the Senate, which treasures its summer break, that is a near-apocalyptic threat that can complicate the prospects of other bills as well.
But Gramm, who with other conservatives has been blocking a measure passed by the Senate Finance Committee, told the same audience that he would not back off and would introduce his own tougher alternative this week.
“On no other issue is there a brighter line in the sand between where we stand and where the Democrats stand on welfare,” said Gramm, who like Dole is seeking the Republican presidential nomination. “And I believe that we can not let the commitment we made in the election perish on the ramparts of compromise and status quo and dealcutting in Washington, D.C.” He later acknowledged that he was directing his remarks at Dole, the front-runner for the nomination.
Senate Democrats and administration officials warned last week that it is increasingly likely that no version of a welfare overhaul will be passed this year as a result of the presidential rivalry of the two men.
While it is clearly in the Democrats’ political interests to paint the idea of welfare reform, which most Americans strongly favor, as being in dire straits, the Republicans are so split that they do need some Democratic support to get a welfare bill through the Senate.
And the Democrats see clearly how the opposition by Gramm and his fellow conservatives would decrease the chances of a deal being struck to reshape the Finance bill more to their liking.
Dole clearly had this in mind when he vowed to overcome opposition from conservatives, whom he did not name.
“It’s not easy to put together a welfare-reform package,” Dole said. “It’s easy to put together if you don’t care how many votes that you get. But to get one that will pass is not easy but we’re working on it.”
The wrangling over welfare is the latest example of the effect on presidential politics on important legislation, including some of the leading items on the Republican’s policy agenda.
Already, the battle between Gramm and Dole has played into the Senate’s work on tax cuts, racial quotas and the scuttled nomination of Dr. Henry W. Foster as surgeon general.
In their appearances in Philadelphia, the two other senators running for president, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, each called on their competitors to stop the partisan bickering and aim their fire at President Clinton.
The welfare bill approved by the Finance Committee would freeze federal welfare spending for five years, cancel the guarantee of subsistence income for poor children and give states lump sums to spend on the poor.
But Gramm and other conservatives like Sen. Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina argue that Congress should cut off welfare payments for unmarried teenage mothers and legal immigrants who have not become citizens.
In addition, they say welfare checks should not be increased for women who have additional children while on welfare. In March, the House passed its welfare bill, mainly along party lines, and it includes many of the provisions Gramm is seeking.
Seizing on the Republicans’ infighting on the issue, Clinton said last week that “some people on the far right are blocking any action on welfare reform” by insisting that the government cut off benefits to unmarried teenage women and their children. The president has threatened to veto any Republican welfare bill that he does not think would do enough to provide job training.