Finding compromise on two issues that have left Washington mired in conflict, the nation’s governors Tuesday unanimously endorsed plans that would overhaul and dramatically reduce the federal role in providing health and welfare assistance for the poor.
President Clinton and Republican congressional leaders were generous with praise but stingy with commitments Tuesday for the bipartisan accord fashioned by the National Governors’ Association, which would give states vastly more authority over the Medicaid program and would end welfare’s status as a federally guaranteed “entitlement.”
The NGA plan, approved at the end of the group’s three-day meeting here, is an exquisitely crafted bargain. Its sponsors tried to soothe fears that welfare reform might lack compassion by promising more federal money in some areas, such as providing child care assistance for recipients required to work for benefits.
And they won support from others by proposing to dismantle much of the legal and bureaucratic apparatus the federal government for decades has used to require the states to help the poor and tell them how to do it.
“We have moved the dialogue,” said Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, R, chairman of the NGA. He said the governors are trying to restart negotiations on balancing the budget that have become stalled amid disagreements between the White House and Congress.
Medicaid and welfare reform are both at the heart of the months-long standoff between Clinton and congressional Republicans.
In back-to-back speeches to the governors, Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole, R-Kan., both professed optimism that the NGA plans would create a new political dynamic that could lead to a grand bargain on eliminating the deficit - a goal that has eluded the White House and Capitol Hill during marathon negotiating sessions and two partial government shutdowns. But there were plenty of downbeat notes mixed in with the praise.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., one of the architects of the current Medicaid system, was among the skeptics. “They’ve talked in the rhetoric of President Clinton, but it looks in the policy to be more of a block grant,” he said.
“The constituency for Medicaid is not the governors - the constituency for Medicaid is the elderly, the disabled and low-income mothers and children.”