WASHINGTON -- A key Senate committee agreed yesterday to maintain nutrition programs for the poor as a federal responsibility but to cut projected spending on them by about 9 percent over five years.
The bill, approved by the Agriculture Committee, rejected the House decision to turn the school lunch program over to the states in the form of a block grant, a move sharply criticized by Democrats and the Clinton administration. The House also decided to cut nutrition spending, which includes food stamps, by nearly 15 percent.
The committee acted amid signs of disarray among Republicans. GOP senators met privately to air their differences over the welfare bill and the timing for considering the measure in the full Senate.
Senators emerged to say there had been no agreement. Some wanted to move ahead with the welfare bill; others sought a delay so Republicans could try to work out their differences privately.
Differences center on the formula for distribution of a $16.8 billion block grant to the states; work requirements for recipients; whether additional programs should be turned over to the states as block grants; and whether the bill should include measures to curb illegitimate births.
Declaring, "I am ready to go," Sen. Bob Packwood, author of the Republican welfare bill, predicted that it would pass if brought to the floor now -- "but not without three weeks of bloody debate."
Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a 37-year-old freshman Republican who described himself as "probably the most impetuous senator," nevertheless suggested that "we take it a little slower" to develop consensus among Republicans. But, he added, "I think we are a lot closer together than everyone believes."
Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, the majority leader, had been expected to bring the welfare measure to the floor after a telecommunications bill that was nearing a final vote last night. After the Republican meeting, he refused to say what the timing would be but said the measure would not come up today.
Meanwhile, President Clinton endorsed a welfare proposal crafted by Senate Democratic leaders. It contains elements of the GOP proposals but rejects their most severe features. The Republican bill, Mr. Clinton said, "runs the risk of undermining our fundamental commitment to the welfare of children without moving people from welfare to work."
Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, chairman of the Agriculture Committee, who was concerned about getting the nutrition elements of the welfare measure to the floor before the start of debate, secured agreement from Democrats and Republicans to hold back on proposing amendments to his plan.
The committee voted 11-7, largely along party lines, for the Lugar bill. Sen. Max Baucus of Montana was the only Democrat to join 10 Republicans supporting the measure.
The Agriculture Committee bill will be joined with legislation from the Finance Committee that would turn over to the states the main welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and cap spending at 1994 levels.
Following the lead of the House, the Senate would end the 60-year-old status of AFDC as an entitlement providing aid to anyone who qualifies, regardless of cost. The Senate would cap spending at $16.8 billion annually for five years, giving each state the amount it received in 1994.
The measure does not include some of the most extreme features of the House bill, including bans on aid to teen-age mothers and on additional benefits to women who give birth to more children -- steps that some conservatives senators are seeking.
The House bill would allow five years of benefits to welfare recipients and would impose new work requirements. The Congressional Budget Office has said most states will fail to meet work goals without substantial extra spending, chiefly for child care for working mothers.
The National Governors Association, the American Public Welfare Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures expressed reservations yesterday about the work requirements, asking for added flexibility if inadequate child-care money were to prevent a state from meeting the goals set out in the bill.
House Republicans had wanted to turn food stamps over to the states as a block grant but backed away after criticism. In the Senate, some Republicans had wanted to convert food stamps to a block grant along with AFDC but lacked the votes.
Mr. Lugar's bill cuts food stamp benefits, tightens eligibility rules, imposes a work requirement and allows the states more tTC flexibility in the program's operations.
The $26 billion food-stamp program -- expected to grow to $32 billion in five years without changes -- serves 27 million poor Americans.