In a double-barreled defeat for conservative Republicans, the Senate voted Wednesday 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 two provisions sparked an intense emotional debate as the Senate moved toward final passage of the welfare reform legislation.
The legislation, which Sen. 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 federal governments 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 additional babies.
The vote enraged Sens. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, and Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C., the most ardent advocates of the provision. Faircloth vowed to oppose the final GOP-sponsored measure and Gramm, a Republican 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,” Gramm said.
Opponents of the family cap, however, 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 Domenici, R-N.M., 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 in the day, the Senate voted 76-24 to knock down a Faircloth amendment to forbid states from giving cash benefits to teen mothers. Faircloth and other conservatives felt the provision was essential to fight out-of-wedlock births.
Dole originally opposed the family cap, but inserted a modified version of it late last week to appease conservative members and powerful grass-roots groups like the Christian Coalition.
He defended the idea during floor debate, arguing that, “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 significantly from the House, which included both in the welfare package it passed earlier this year. It also dealt a blow to the Christian Coalition and other non-Catholic conservative groups.
Ralph Reed, the president of the Christian Coalition, said in an interview that he expects the provisions to be reinserted in the welfare bill when House and Senate members meet to work out their differences.
“Our view is, despite of our temporary setback in the Senate, we expect the final bill to include a family cap,” he said. He said the coalition also hopes that the denial of benefits to teen mothers will also be included.
“For us welfare reform isn’t just a fiscal issue - it’s a moral issue,” Reed said. He added that reducing federal subsidies to women who have babies out of wedlock will strengthen the American family.
But Wednesday’s outcome left Senate liberals savoring a rare victory on social policy.
“This is not the way to deal with this baffling problem (of illegitimacy),” Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., said of the proposed cap. “These children have not asked to be brought into this world. We have an elemental responsibility.”
Republican and Democratic governors alike, many of whom thought the family cap amounted to unwanted federal micromanagement, cheered the vote, as did the 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 a level of at least 80 percent of their current amount. The “maintenance of effort” provision was a clear indication of the influence moderate Republicans can wield when they join forces with Democrats.
The House version of welfare reform did not require states to continue to put up any of their own money.
As senators moved on to other elements of the legislation Wednesday night, Republican and Democratic leaders met behind closed doors to try to strike a deal for final passage.
The outstanding issues included a provision to increase spending to pay for child care for welfare mothers who are working or receiving job training and to provide a contingency fund for states that use up their federal welfare block grants.
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