WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's task force on welfare reform has translated his pledge to "end welfare as we know it" into a plan to spend significant new sums on child care, work and training programs. But the group says its ambitious goals can be entirely financed by cuts or savings in welfare or other programs for the needy.
The draft plan was completed 12 days ago and is subject to revisions before it is presented to Clinton. The confidential plan reiterates his pledge to impose a two-year limit on welfare benefits, after which recipients would have to enroll in a work program or face financial penalties.
But it holds open the possibility that the work program could be temporary, and it does not resolve the ultimate question: What would then happen to poor families who still could not find private jobs?
One administration official drafting the plan called that "the $64,000 question" that after nearly a year in office, the administration has not answered. Like the people who devised the administration's initial ambitious health care proposals, the welfare planners did not say how much the plan would cost or specify which program cuts would finance it.
Some welfare experts voiced skepticism that a serious welfare plan could be financed simply by cutting current programs.
The working group member, speaking on the condition of anonymity, characterized the plan as "a first draft" and said that it underscored the amount of detailed work still to come before one of the president's primary campaign pledges is converted to legislation.
David T. Ellwood, one of three co-chairmen of the working group, acknowledged that many decisions remain. "The whole question of how exactly the jobs will work is still very much under discussion," he said.
The financing remains a central political difficulty. Many members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, think the time limit can save money and court favor with the public. But the plan makes the time limits contingent on the government's providing expensive new services, such as child care, and the working group members are searching for ways to pay for such care.
For now, the White House is in the midst of a vigorous internal debate over the timing of the plan. Some see the need to fulfill political promises quickly, particularly with congressional Republicans pushing a time-limit plan of their own.
Others are warning that fast action on welfare will produce political and financial conflicts for the health care bill, which must travel through the same congressional committees.
In its overall vision, the Clinton plan builds on, rather than replaces, the 1988 Family Support Act, a welfare overhaul that Mr. Clinton played a central role in developing.
In addition to calling for expanded child care, training, and work programs, the plan also endorses a national campaign to reduce teen-age pregnancy.
It calls for "dramatic improvements in the child support enforcement system" and acknowledges "there is considerable division" within the group over whether the government should make the payments itself if it fails to collect them.
The report indicates an enthusiasm for expanding training programs so that they include absent fathers, as well as mothers. Such an expansion could help fathers earn more, and therefore pay more in child support. But such an expansion also would add large new costs.
The paper also acknowledges the considerable political challenges that surround a revamping of the welfare system and which, in the past, have defeated ambitious plans by Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter.
The Clinton plan is similar to Mr. Carter's in one crucial respect: his insistence that any welfare overhaul pay for itself by offsetting cuts or savings in other programs. That is a major reason Mr. Carter's plan failed in Congress.
Bruce Reed, a White House domestic policy aide who is a co-chairman of the task force, expressed confidence that the financing would not similarly stall this plan. "The cost depends how gradually it's phased in," he said.
Mr. Reed said the administration would phase in the program, perhaps a few states at a time. Another way of holding down costs, he said, would be to apply the new rules, and expensive new services, only to new welfare applicants.