September 20, 1995 in Nation/World

Senate Approves Revolutionary Welfare Reform Bill Ends Pledge Of Help For Poor, Turns Responsibility Over To States

Knight-Ridder
 

The Senate overwhelmingly approved a welfare bill Tuesday that would end the federal government’s 60-year-old promise to help poor families by guaranteeing them monthly payments.

Instead, the bill would slash spending from welfare programs and send a fixed amount of money to the states to attempt what many lawmakers say the federal government has failed to do - help these families become self-sufficient.

The 87-12 vote reflects a change in the country’s financial priorities and would change the rules for a welfare system that serves 14 million people - two-thirds of them children.

Families no longer would be able to get benefits indefinitely. After two years of receiving benefits, mothers with children would have to start working or training for jobs. And legal immigrants who are not yet citizens would be ineligible for most social services.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas described the bill as “writing a new chapter in the history of this great nation.

“We are not only fixing the welfare system; we are revolutionizing it. And in the process, we are closing the book on a six-decade-long system that may have been well-intentioned but failed the taxpayers and the people it was designed to serve.”

But Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, one of 11 Democrats who voted against the bill, called it “welfare fraud.”

“This day will be remembered as the day the Senate broke a noble promise to vulnerable Americans,” he said. “The safety net for children will no longer be part of what makes America America.”

The Senate bill and a stricter bill that passed the House in March now go to a conference committee to try to reconcile differences. Social conservatives plan to press there for more restrictions on who will get benefits.

President Clinton, who vowed during his 1992 campaign “to end welfare as we know it,” has indicated he could support the Senate bill if it is not changed substantially.

Advocates for children and poor families worry that conservative politics have pushed the country headlong into an experiment that could leave more children and families hungry, neglected and alienated.

“We are doing wholesale experimentation without any evidence that any of this works,” said David Liederman, executive director of the Child Welfare League of America, a coalition of 800 groups and agencies that work with troubled children.

“You don’t experiment on the backs of poor children,” he said. “That’s outrageous.”

Some Democrats who voted against the bill complained that it simply shifted federal responsibilities to the states.

“Real welfare reform has to come to grips with the problems of jobs and poverty,” said Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill. “Anything that is called welfare reform but does not include jobs or deal with the problem of poverty is false advertising.”

But momentum behind the legislation was fueled by taxpayer support for reform, the push by some governors for more control over welfare and the Republican plan to balance the budget and provide a tax cut.

After 14 days of debate shaped by internal fights, partisan wrangling and presidential politics, Senate Republicans stood firm in support of a major component of the House’s “Contract With America” campaign document.

Besides Kennedy and Simon, the other Democrats who voted against the bill were: Sens. Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii, Bill Bradley of New Jersey, Robert Kerrey of Nebraska, Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, Paul Sarbanes of Maryland and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota.

Senate Democrats claimed some victory by working with moderate Republicans to add more money for child care, require continued spending of state money on welfare programs and reject a plan that would have denied the average $39 increase to welfare mothers who have additional children.

The compromises in the Senate bill guarantee more debate over money and values as the Senate and House negotiate the differences in their bills.

The House bill turns over control of more federal programs to the states and includes more provisions aimed at curbing out-of-wedlock births, such as denying cash benefits to children born to teenage mothers.

The House would also end assistance for most social services, including federal disability benefits, to most legal non-citizens already in the country.

Social conservatives, led by Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, have vowed to fight to ensure such provisions are in a final bill. And they are likely to have some sway because the House bill, with all its restrictions, saves taxpayers more money.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the House bill would save an estimated $102 billion over seven years. The Senate bill was estimated to save about $70 billion, but compromises have reduced that amount.

Administration officials said the president would not sign a welfare bill that moves toward the House proposal.

“We’ve worked too hard, too long, to let partisan extremism kill this effort,” Clinton said in his Saturday radio address.

“Make no mistake: If Congress walks away from this bipartisan progress, they will kill welfare reform.”

Clinton has used veto threats and negotiation to move the Senate bill toward his thinking. His own plan, which retained the federal entitlement, died when the November election swept in a GOP Congress.

In that election, the number of Republican governors jumped to 30 from 20. Feeling their new strength, they appealed to congressional leaders to give them control over welfare programs. They could do it better and cheaper, they said. Congressional leaders, looking for ways to cut the budget, took them up on that offer.

But governors, along with other state and local government officials, were far from united behind this concept.

Democratic governors worried that states could end up with more responsibility and too little money to get poor families on their feet.

By the end of the Senate debate, Republican governors were joining with Democrats to successfully lobby for more child-care money and for a $1 billion pot that would be available if a state has an economic downturn. And Democrats were using the “states’ rights” argument against conservative restrictions.

MEMO: Changed in the Spokane edition

This sidebar appeared with the story: HOW THEY VOTED Here’s how Northwest Senators voted on welfare reform: Idaho Larry Craig, R, yes; Dirk Kempthorne, R, yes. Washington Slade Gorton, R, yes; Patty Murray, D, yes.

Changed in the Spokane edition

This sidebar appeared with the story: HOW THEY VOTED Here’s how Northwest Senators voted on welfare reform: Idaho Larry Craig, R, yes; Dirk Kempthorne, R, yes. Washington Slade Gorton, R, yes; Patty Murray, D, yes.


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