An End To Welfare Politics As We Know It?

For four years, Democrats and Republicans have devoted more energy to playing politics with welfare reform than trying to overhaul a system in need of repair. President Clinton waited two years just to introduce his plan, and Capitol Hill Republicans sent him two draconian versions designed to prompt vetoes. Now Congress is at it again--and the third try may be the charm.

This time, politics might be the driving force behind passage. With Election Day nearing, Clinton fervently wants to fulfill his 1992 pledge to "end welfare as we know it" by signing a reform bill. And many Hill Republicans, worried about their own reelection, want to bring something home to the voters and shed the "extremist" label pinned on them by Democrats. So they're willing to accept less-stringent reform and share credit with Clinton.

TOUGHER BILL. That's why the Senate voted 74-24 on July 23 for a moderate plan. It would end the unlimited 60-year-old federal welfare entitlement to mothers and children by cutting aid to adults who don't accept work or training after two years, and capping lifetime benefits at five years. A House-Senate conference will work out differences with a tougher version approved earlier by the House. The outlook: a final agreement, possibly by August, that Clinton will sign. The President says the latest measure is still too tough on poor children, but senior White House aides praise it as a serious attempt at compromise and not just veto bait. "I'm optimistic we can make it even better in the conference," Clinton predicted.

The President isn't alone in looking for a way out on welfare. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.)--who replaced GOP Presidential candidate Bob Dole in June--wants to demonstrate his clout and counter charges that the Republican Congress is gridlocked. "The best politics is to do what's right for the country...not on the basis of party," Lott says.

Still, daunting obstacles remain. The chief political snag is Dole's flagging campaign. The Kansan has been counting on using Clinton's vetoes as a potent issue this fall. So Dole's advisers are loath to see Clinton get off the hook and, worse, take credit for welfare reform. Dole has an ally in House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who favors sticking with a harder line that would force Clinton to veto the measure or alienate liberals by signing it.

There are also policy differences. Unlike the Senate measure, the House bill would deny new aid to children born to welfare mothers while allowing states to convert the federal food stamp program into a cash grant. Both Senate and House versions also would deny public assistance, including food stamps, to legal immigrants.

Clinton is facing pressure within his own party. Five Democratic senators, led by Daniel P. Moynihan of New York, on July 23 warned that without a veto, "We will have children sleeping on grates."

In the end, strategists for both parties say it's better to have a compromise than a breakdown that angers voters. Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour says reform "is good for the American people. Hopefully, the President will sign the bill now." And Michigan Governor John Engler, a state welfare reform pioneer, says the GOP should not block an overhaul just to deprive Clinton of a victory. "A signature doesn't take the issue away from the Republicans," he says. "We're going to benefit from delivering on our promise."

Indeed, a new welfare law could prove to be win-win for everybody--Clinton, Lott, Hill Republicans. Everyone, that is, but Bob Dole.

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