WASHINGTON -- This week, when President Clinton unveiled his long-awaited welfare reform package, Republican leaders lined up three deep -- wherever a television camera could be found -- to take turns bashing it.

"Tinkering," said Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin.

"A shell game," said Sen. Connie Mack of Florida.

"A facade," added Sen. Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina.

"Why did it take 18 months to come up with something as minimal as this?" scoffed Rep. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

Partisan sniping is nothing new in an election year. But the Republicans' wet-blanket response to the president's welfare reform proposals is indicative of a poisonous atmosphere in Washington that threatens not only Bill Clinton's agenda, but also the GOP's image and, most important, the people's business.

Certainly, Mr. Clinton's plan didn't go as far as conservatives would have liked.

But it does include such centrist-to-conservative ideas as allowing states to freeze welfare grants to women who have more children while on welfare; requiring able-bodied adults receiving welfare to work after two years or see their grants revoked; encouraging -- with monetary incentives -- teen-age mothers to stay at home instead of move out.

It is also accompanied by $400 million in pilot programs to encourage abstinence and birth control in an effort to lower the number of teen-age pregnancies.

Challenging liberals

If all this isn't enough for Republicans, they can try to alter or amend the package as it works its way through Congress.

But what is missing from the Republicans' public stance is any acknowledgment that in trying to break the culture of dependency that welfare has fostered, Mr. Clinton is challenging the interest groups, voting blocs and cherished assumptions that Democratic liberals have nurtured for decades.

So precious are these assumptions, and so tied are they to the morass of race relations, that any Republican president would have risked being pilloried as racist and heartless if he'd introduced the bill.

Republicans know it was one of their own, President Richard M. Nixon, the cold warrior with impeccable anti-Communist credentials, who was able to open diplomatic relations with "Red" China and get away with it.

Likewise, only a Democrat considered racially sensitive and empathetic to the poor could successfully tackle the liberal, Democratic interest groups and constituencies who sometimes sound as though poor people have an inalienable right to bear children the taxpayers must support.

Clinton willing to try

But the president showed this week that he was willing to try. Knowing he has opposition on the left as well as the right, he argued that the current system was not only a drain on taxpayers, but also unfair to poor mothers and their children.

Mr. Clinton also said in his speech, delivered in Kansas City, Mo., that he didn't care who gets the credit. This made some Republicans grit their teeth -- in the same speech Mr. Clinton took credit for a host of other initiatives he asserts are undoing the alleged evils of the Reagan-Bush years.

The president and his aides are fond of saying that their first year in office was more successful, in terms of legislation passed, than any since Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. The second year hasn't been so kind.

Health reform stalled

Mr. Clinton's self-described No. 1 issue, health care, is snagged in congressional committees. A majority of Democrats won't walk the president's plank on requiring employers to pay for health care, while Republicans have concluded that the plan is so unpopular that they don't lose much by opposing it. The White House response has been to castigate the GOP as "the party of gridlock."

Sen. David L. Boren, a moderate on the Senate Finance Committee, told the president this week that insulting the Republicans is folly and that the way to achieve lasting health reform is to craft a scaled-down proposal that earns the overwhelming support of moderates in both parties.

far, the White House hasn't heeded this advice, and welfare reform arrives on Capitol Hill in this hostile environment.

"Nothing is going to happen this year -- that's key -- so our attitude is, he's just doing this to be political," said one former top Reagan administration official with close ties to the Republican leadership.

"No. 2, on NAFTA, we pulled his chestnuts out of the fire, and we didn't get so much as a thank-you note," he added. "All we got was 'party of gridlock.' Well, if he's going to bash, bash, bash, why should we say nice things about him? Also, he wants to send his proposal up there and have our guys genuflect while the Democrats sit on their hands."

Hard line is questionable

In taking such a hard line, however, Republicans are raising as many questions about themselves as they are about Mr. Clinton. Some of the questions are as basic as what does the GOP really stand for in domestic policy these days?

Also, neutral observers wonder, just what do Republican leaders think America's voters were trying to tell them just two years ago, when an eccentric billionaire polled nearly 1 out of 5 votes -- and a sitting Republican president got only 38 percent?

"The election was about change," said Mark DiCamillo, an independent pollster from San Francisco. "It was about the voters saying they wanted more focus on domestic policy."

Mr. DiCamillo says he understands that Republican insiders can't overcome their suspicion of Mr. Clinton's motives.

"Their quarrel is the timing of the [welfare] proposal," he said. "If .. this had been introduced in 1995, I believe the reaction would have been different. "He wouldn't be seen as having ulterior motives."

But Mr. DiCamillo insists that to the average voter this squabbling seems absurd. "The Republicans' [action] is understandable," he says. "It isn't good government."

Before Mr. Clinton had even finished speaking in Kansas City, competing groups of Republicans were deriding the president's plan.

The next day, one White House aide after another began seething. Some thought the Republicans were jealous that Mr. Clinton had "stolen" their issue. Others believed that such prominent Republicans as William J. Bennett and Sen. Bob Dole and Sen. Phil Gramm were putting their own ambitions ahead of the national interest.

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