July 24, 1996 in Nation/World

Welfare Bill Passes; Will Clinton Sign? Third Attempt At Reform Still Cuts Benefits To Legal Immigrants, Limits Aid To Children

David Hess Knight-Ridder

The Senate passed sweeping legislation Tuesday to hand power over welfare programs to the states, including some provisions that might invite a veto from President Clinton.

The bill would end the 61-year-old Aid to Families With Dependent Children program and slash food stamp and other federal programs that provide tens of billions of dollars a year in public aid to eligible families.

It was approved 74-24 with broad bipartisan support. Sen. Slade Gorton voted for the bill and Sen. Patty Murray voted against it.

“The status quo hurts more than it helps, and it has trapped people in a cycle of poverty,” Gorton said in a prepared statement.

It’s a measure of the perceived popularity of welfare reform that among the Democrats seeking re-election, only Paul Wellstone of Minnesota voted no.

Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., voted no, asserting that it came down too hard on children. “And what about kids?” he said. “When it comes to their safety net, this bill is still too punitive.”

But Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said he was “shocked to hear the Democratic leader say … the answer will still be no. There are many here who talk about welfare reform, but when they get right up to it they back away.”

The legislation, like the House version, would limit lifetime welfare assistance to five years per family, and require recipients to accept work if offered after two years on welfare.

The bills would cut welfare and food stamp benefits by roughly $60 billion by 2002, compared with current law. Of that sum, food stamps and other federal nutrition programs (including school lunches) would be slashed about $30 billion.

The legislation also would deny a wide range of benefits - including welfare, disability and Medicaid - to legal immigrants, amounting to $18 billion.

If Clinton signs a welfare reform bill, each state would be able to establish its own rules of eligibility and level of benefits. In earlier years, before the federal minimum standards were set, there were vast disparities from state to state on the amount of monthly support for poor families.

A House-Senate committee will bring the two bills into agreement, and final approval from both houses is expected by Aug. 4, when Congress breaks for its summer recess before the presidential nominating conventions.

Clinton has said repeatedly that he wants to sign the welfare bill. But he already has vetoed two earlier GOP welfare proposals, and Republicans dared him to do it again - and risk the wrath of the large majority of voters who say they want reform.

The president said during a Western campaign swing Tuesday that he would sign a truly “bipartisan” bill that represented “real welfare reform.” And he said he was pleased by a few changes made by the Senate to cushion the bill’s impact on children.

But he also indicated the bill did not yet go far enough in meeting his demands.

“Today, the Senate, I want you to know, took some major steps to improve the bill going through Congress,” Clinton said in Sacramento, Calif. “On the other hand, we want a bill that actually is welfare reform. You can put wings on a pig, but you don’t make it an eagle. We want real welfare reform. …

“If we can keep this progress up, if we can make it bipartisan, then we can have a real welfare reform bill.”

The president has been deliberately vague about the details of his objections. Critics have pointed to elements that cut benefits to legal immigrants and limit aid to children as reasons why Clinton ought to reject the Senate bill.

Clinton’s remarks were seen as an effort to maintain pressure on House and Senate Republicans to agree to more changes to satisfy him.

Republican leaders are confident, however, that the president will end up signing their bill because the political risk of vetoing it would be unacceptable.

“I think the president will sign what he gets (from us),” said House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, “because the president is a pure politician who wants to get re-elected.”

Lott said, “If the president doesn’t sign this one, it’ll be the third one he’s vetoed.”

Much of the debate in the House and Senate the past two weeks has centered on the impact of the changes on indigent children, along with complaints that the bills fall well short of providing the resources that states and cities would need to offer jobs required to move people off welfare.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, for instance, has estimated that the legislation falls some $12 billion shy, over six years, of the amount that would be needed to meet the states’ work requirements. The monthly benefits of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of families could be terminated without any prospect of having jobs ready for them to make the transition from welfare to work.

As the Senate plowed through amendments to the bill Tuesday, it softened a few items in response to White House objections. It deleted a provision that would have handed over to states control of the food stamp program. And, in a major concession to Clinton, it continued Medicaid coverage for poor women and children, even if they exhausted their welfare payments or went on to low-paying jobs that provided no health benefits.

Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., the chief sponsor of that amendment, said, “The United States has the highest percentage of children in poverty of any industrial nation in the world. I certainly hope we won’t make it worse by denying these children (health) benefits.”

At the same time, senators voted narrowly, 50-49, to kill an effort by Sen. Wendell Ford, D-Ky., permitting states to use federal block grants to pay for such items as diapers, clothing, medicine or other children’s needs after their parents exhausted their AFDC benefits. The White House had lobbied strenuously for Ford’s amendment.

Although the Senate eased some of the more stringent House-passed features, the bill still was derided by critics as overly harsh to the poor and as shifting too much of the financial burden to states.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., complained that as many as 1.5 million children could be lopped off welfare and food stamp rolls with no financial recourse. “It slashes a gaping hole in the safety net,” he said.

And the liberal think tank, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, issued an analysis of the bill saying that “almost half the food stamp cuts would come from the poorest of the poor - households with incomes below half of the poverty line.”

The official federal poverty line now for a three-member family is $12,500 a year; half of that would be $6,250.

The 20 percent cut, over six years, in food stamp benefits would reduce the amount per meal for food stamp recipients to 66 cents from 80 cents.

“I defy anybody to eat a nourishing meal for 66 cents,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. “This bill is anti-family, anti-child and mean-spirited. It is really beneath what a great country should stand for.”

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., also criticized the bill’s underlying purpose of removing the federal guarantee of assistance - called an entitlement - for people meeting uniform, nationwide standards of joblessness and poverty.

“Needy children will no longer receive a helping hand, unless they are lucky enough to be born in a state that has the resources and the will to provide that assistance,” Kennedy said. “Help for children will no longer be a matter of national policy - but a gamble of geography.”

But Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., argued that the time has come to break the cycle of dependency of multi-generation welfarism.

“We need to change welfare from being a condition to being a transition,” he said. “Welfare cannot be something that is a lifestyle. It has to be something that is just for a while.”

Other major features of the bill would:

Allow states to exempt from work up to 20 percent of all recipients in cases of hardship.

Convert federal aid into block grants for states to use mostly as they see fit in operating their own assistance programs.

Retain Medicaid health benefits for poor families whose welfare eligibility expires.

Ban states from using federal block grants to give food and medicine vouchers to children whose parents’ welfare eligibility lapsed.

Make it harder for children to qualify for disability benefits under the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program.

xxxx WELFARE OVERHAUL Highlights of the welfare bill approved Tuesday by the Senate. The legislation is nearly identical to a bill passed by the House. Differences will be ironed out in conference committee. Work requirements: Most adult welfare recipients would have to find work in two years. Eligibility limits: Welfare limited to five years for most families, but states could waive this requirement for up to 20 percent of their recipients. States could deny benefits to unmarried mothers under 18. The House bill also would allow them to deny benefits to children born of welfare recipients; the Senate deleted this provision. Food stamps: Reduced for most recipients. Able-bodied people 18 to 50 who have no dependents would lose food stamps unless they worked. Immigration: Legal immigrants would have to work in the U.S. for at least 10 years or become citizens before getting food stamps or Supplemental Security Income payments. Child support: States would be required to strengthen enforcement against deadbeat parents, including suspending driver’s licenses for those not paying child support.

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