Republican leaders in Congress abandoned the most controversial elements of a House welfare proposal Friday and agreed to allow the states to take the lead in reforming the widely criticized welfare system.
In a closed-door meeting with 15 GOP governors, the Republican leaders agreed to rewrite the welfare bill, part of their “Contract with America,” so that states would have flexibility to run their own programs, according to meeting participants.
Controversial provisions such as ones denying benefits to legal immigrants and unwed teen mothers will be removed from the bill as mandates. States would be given federal money and allowed to enact their own rules aimed at curbing illegitimacy and getting welfare recipients into the workplace.
Still unresolved are what strings, if any, will be attached to the money - such as whether to penalize states that don’t reduce their welfare rolls or cut down on the incidence of outof-wedlock births.
The GOP plan is still expected to require states to limit how long welfare recipients can receive benefits - but will likely leave the details up to the states. It also is expected to include work requirements for welfare recipients, but let states set the rules, according to meeting participants.
In the session, attended by members of Congress instrumental in writing the welfare plan, there was still some support for cutting back on benefits available to non-citizens. But that insistence weakened in the face of opposition from governors, including New Jersey’s Christine Todd Whitman.
Some governors, such as Michigan’s John Engler, want total freedom over how to run welfare and are willing to take less money in exchange, but federal lawmakers said that is unrealistic.
The agreement by GOP leaders to back off the House welfare plan represents the first time any of the 10 bills outlined in the House Republican contract has undergone substantial changes. The contract was unveiled during the election campaign to demonstrate the GOP’s commitment to change.
At a news conference after the meeting, both House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole described the states as the natural laboratories for reform.
Republican leaders are engaged in a long-overdue effort to return more power to the states, Dole said. “Welfare reform is a good example,” he said.
Gingrich praised the governors’ track record on dealing with welfare, tax and school reform: “I’ve watched them come in and take on some tough issues and make them work. And I’ve seen voters say that’s a good deal.”
The governors - whose support is crucial for major GOP legislation such as the constitutional amendment for a balanced budget - were enthusiastic about the new direction of the welfare debate.
“By turning the program to the states with both freedom and flexibility, we will be able to do it better and leave more federal money on the table,” Engler said. “We think this is a win-win situation.”
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