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Key senator proposes keeping school-lunch program intact


WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee proposed yesterday to keep the school lunch program intact, rejecting House legislation that would turn it over to the states and limit spending.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar's proposal, welcomed by the Clinton administration, was included in a bill that would scale back nutrition programs for the poor.

The House welfare bill passed in March would give the states TC "block grant" to run the program and end the guarantee of a school lunch for every poor child. Those changes became the focus of some of the harshest criticism of the GOP welfare plan as Democrats staged visits to school lunch rooms to complain that Republicans were taking food from the mouths of poor children.

The House bill also would convert the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program to a block grant. Mr. Lugar's bill leaves that program intact.

Mr. Lugar had considered converting food stamps to a block grant but said he changed his mind about turning that program over to the states. The House plan also retains the food stamp program as an entitlement.

"I was prepared to act boldly," Mr. Lugar, an Indiana Republican running for president, told the Senate. But he said there were sharp differences within the committee and tacitly acknowledged that he didn't have the votes.

The administration breathed a sigh of relief at the Lugar proposals.

"I am gratified that Senator Lugar agrees with us that food stamps should not be block-granted and we should maintain the basic structure," Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said in St. Louis.

Turning the food stamp program into a block grant would have increased the chances of a presidential veto. President Clinton has said he wants a welfare bill that contains stiff work requirements and preserves the safety net for children, but he has not laid out his requirements in detail.

Administration officials have hinted that their minimum requirement for the safety net is preservation of the food stamp program as an entitlement.

Both the House and Senate GOP bills would turn the main cash assistance program for the poor, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) into a block grant and end its status as an entitlement, assuring benefits to anyone who qualifies, no matter what it costs the government.

Although the administration has strenuously opposed this provision, there has been no specific threat of a veto if it remains in the bill.

Initially, House Republicans had wanted to turn food stamps over to the states as a block grant, but backed away from the proposal under pressure from farm state and food-industry interests that count on the program to support them.

Mr. Lugar's bill proposes to cut food-stamp spending, tighten eligibility standards, require work of recipients and give the states more flexibility in the program's operation.

In many respects, it is similar to the House measure.

Mr. Lugar said his bill would save $18 billion on food stamps over five years. An additional $500 million to $700 million would be saved in child nutrition programs by reducing subsidies for meals that go to middle- and higher-income children.

The House bill would save nearly $30 billion on food stamps and child nutrition programs.

The food stamp program provides aid to 27 million poor Americans, at a cost of $26 billion a year. Without changes, the program will cost $32 billion in five years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The Agriculture Committee is scheduled to vote on the Lugar proposals Wednesday. The proposals will be put together with welfare legislation authored by Sen. Bob Packwood, chairman of the Finance Committee, and proposals on child care and child-abuse prevention and treatment coming out of the Labor Committee.

The full Senate could take up the welfare bill as early as next week. Once the Senate adopts a bill, a clash with the House over its more restrictive measure is virtually certain as negotiators try to work out major differences between the two bills to produce the final legislation.

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