President Clinton, speaking in Baltimore to a National Governors' Association "summit on children," passionately attacked Republican welfare plans yesterday.
He warned that their approach would not help welfare recipients get jobs and would not fulfill America's moral responsibility to care for poor children.
Alluding to a bill that passed the House and a similar version pending in the Senate that give states wide leeway on how to provide welfare, Mr. Clinton said states should be required to provide a minimum level of benefits to the poor.
If not, he said, there would be a "race to the bottom" as states save money by trimming welfare rolls instead of helping people find jobs.
"It's always cheaper to cut people off than move them to work," the president told the audience at the Stouffer Renaissance Harbor Place hotel on East Pratt Street.
Mr. Clinton instead proposed giving a "bonus" to states that move people off the welfare rolls and into jobs.
The president also asserted that the Republican plans were directed primarily not at reforming welfare but at balancing the budget.
"The issue is, are there any other responsibilities of the national government?" the former Arkansas governor asked the association, which he once headed.
"I believe there are some. I think we have to help people who cannot help themselves . . . like little children who are poor. . . . I don't think that you can sacrifice our responsibility to educate people and our responsibility for basic health and safety, security issues, on the altar of deficit reduction."
Some of the Republicans in the room took offense.
"What is fundamentally lacking here is a sense of trust in local communities," Gov. Michael O. Leavitt of Utah said later.
Gov. Arne Carlson of Minnesota said governors have been at the forefront of experiments to reform welfare and "don't want to see their efforts blasted by a national government that has reveled in mediocrity."
The governors have been divided over the Republican proposals to limit federal welfare spending and to turn the money over to the states in the form of "block grants," which would give them wide latitude to design their own programs.
The House and Senate would each freeze federal spending for the next five years and end the guarantee that anyone who qualifies can collect benefits.
'Following in lock step'
Speaking to reporters after Mr. Clinton's speech, Gov. Parris N. Glendening of Maryland said the paralysis in the governors association was due to "a number of Republican governors [who] are following in lock step the leadership in the United States House of Representatives."
But the chairman of the association, Democrat Howard Dean of Vermont, seemed to accept the inevitability of reduced federal funding.
Saying he supports a balanced budget, he told governors that they would have to set the spending priorities and increase spending on children while cutting other programs.
"This is a problem that's not going to get better," he said.
Touting his state's efforts to help children, Gov. George V. Voinovich of Ohio, a Republican, told the conference, "If federal block grants with broad state flexibility pass, I believe Ohio can achieve even more."
Mr. Clinton did not mention the possibility of a veto yesterday, and administration officials said they hope it would not be necessary.
The philosophical approach embraced by the administration is that the focus should be on creating positive incentives to move people off the welfare rolls.
These include raising tax refunds for the working poor, easing them gradually off Medicaid and to comparable private health insurance, providing child care for single mothers, going after "deadbeat dads," and paying for adult education and job training.
The Republicans would embrace some of these proposals and leave others up to the states.
Moreover, the House legislation creates disincentives for unwed mothers to bear children, notably by cutting welfare recipients off the rolls after five years, freezing benefits awarded to welfare mothers who have additional children and not allowing teen mothers cash benefits.
The Senate Finance Committee kept the five-year restriction but dropped the others. It would permit the states to impose them if they want to.
Halting benefits has been denounced by the president and Democrats on Capitol Hill as punitive.
Yesterday, Mr. Clinton said the Senate version was more acceptable to him, but not entirely satisfactory.
The president set out four principles he believes must be present in a welfare reform bill.
* The government must require able-bodied adults to work -- and provide child care for them "so they don't have to hurt their children to do the right thing as citizens."
* Those who work shouldn't have to give up government-provided health care benefits for their families -- or take what amounts to a cut in pay -- to go off welfare.
* States should receive financial incentives from the federal government for moving people off the welfare rolls and into jobs -- not just to thin their ranks by raising the poverty threshold. Senate Democrats, including Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, are preparing an amendment calling for such "bonuses."
* Congress should not lock states into formulaic block grants that would hurt high-growth states or states that suffer unexpected economic downturns.
Sen. John Ashcroft, a Missouri Republican, criticized the idea of a bonus for certain states as an example of the "Washington micro-management" that helped create the current problems.
Since Republicans took over Congress, Mr. Clinton's top aides have described GOP proposals to trim government spending as "extremist" or "mean-spirited" or "dumb" or as being sops to "the rich."
Across party lines
Yesterday, Mr. Clinton began by saying he wanted to work across party lines to solve the welfare problem. What is needed in the debate, he said, is "not another ideological war, but a passionate and practical" discussion about solutions.
The president spoke of "mean-spirited" restrictions on benefits, of those who "want to cut Medicaid to shreds . . . just because it's a poor person's health care," and said welfare reform is "primarily . . . a way to cut spending on the poor so that we can balance the budget in seven years and give a big tax cut, largely benefiting upper-income people who have done pretty well in the 1980s."
Republicans bristled at such characterizations.
"President Clinton's repeated criticism is unjustified," Mr. Ashcroft said.
"The welfare reform proposal he introduced last year requires work from only 20 percent of recipients . . . and now he is trying to get back in the welfare reform debate by playing politics."