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WASHINGTON -- For Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a star in the Washington galaxy for three decades, these are strange and troubling times.

Widely regarded as the foremost congressional expert on welfare, Senator Moynihan has seemed disengaged, almost isolated, as newly dominant Republicans prepare to make major changes in the nation's support system for the poor.

True, the New York Democrat has criticized the GOP plan. He has his own proposal and is scheduled to lead the Democratic opposition during the floor debate, which has been delayed by squabbling among Republicans.

But he is holding at arm's length his own party's alternative proposal, itself a sweeping remake of welfare. His colleagues are dismayed and puzzled as the Senate's most imposing figure on welfare goes it alone -- unwilling to join his party's leaders in crafting their alternative or to mobilize support for his own bill.

For nearly two generations, Mr. Moynihan has been an insightful student of social trends, able to spot them early, and willing to speak his mind even when it conflicts with the conventional wisdom.

In 1965, he broke ranks with virtually all fellow liberals by warning that the breakdown of the black family was a problem for the nation.

Infuriated liberals

Four years later he infuriated the liberal establishment by joining the Nixon administration as a White House aide, reinforcing his ,, image as a man willing to go against the grain.

Under Nixon, he was the architect of the White House plan to guarantee a minimum income to each American family, an initiative that failed when liberals judged it too stingy and conservatives found it too generous.

He has worked in Republican and Democratic administrations and spent the past 18 years in the Senate, earning the credentials and stature that many say would have allowed him to broker a meaningful compromise on welfare this year.

At stake is the New Deal guarantee that anyone who qualifies for cash benefits can get them, no matter what it costs. Republicans want to end that entitlement by capping spending at the 1994 level and limiting recipients to only five years on the rolls.

The GOP would give the money to the states, along with broad authority to run the program, but would free them of obligations to spend any of their own money on welfare.

Opponents of the GOP plan had hoped Mr. Moynihan would lead the effort to fashion a measure that could attract enough bipartisan support to be a viable, less-sweeping alternative to the GOP plan.

But he wasn't interested.

With Democrats and Republicans saying the welfare system has failed and polls showing widespread voter dissatisfaction with it, Mr. Moynihan is a lonely voice calling for what amounts to little more than a fine-tuning of the existing system.

'Status quo is working'

"The status quo is working," he said this week.

That, say colleagues, is the nub of the problem. He was the driving force behind a 1988 law that Congressional Quarterly, a Washington journal, called "the most significant overhaul of the welfare system in half a century," and he doesn't want to see it dismantled before it has a chance to succeed.

To many colleagues, it seems as if -- for reasons few claim to understand -- Mr. Moynihan has thrown in the towel at a time when he could have been a commanding general in the welfare battle, at the least conducting guerrilla warfare against the Republicans.

To Lawrence O'Donnell, a Moynihan aide, the explanation is simple: He has lost his clout, even though many who have looked to the senator for leadership on welfare issues over the years refuse to accept it.

"Most of Democratic Washington doesn't understand what happened in November," said Mr. O'Donnell. "He was elected out of that role. Newt Gingrich is the leader on welfare."

Mr. Moynihan's failure to fight vigorously for an alternative that would preserve the entitlement in which he believes deeply has mystified colleagues.

Ironically, the Senate GOP bill -- written by Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon, the Finance Committee chairman and a close friend of Mr. Moynihan -- would preserve the core of the 1988 bill, a jobs program, while the Democrats' proposal would would scrap it.

Despite that, Mr. Moynihan sees the GOP measure as a betrayal of the New Deal promise of support for the poor.

'Conditional entitlement'

"It is beyond belief that in the middle of the Great Depression of the 1930s we provided for children a minimum benefit to keep them alive, and in the middle of the 1990s, the successful 1990s, we're going to take that away," he says.

The Democrats would preserve the entitlement for children -- sort of. They call it a "conditional entitlement."

Like the Republicans, Democrats would impose stiff work requirements and end cash payments to welfare recipients after five years on the rolls. But they would continue some assistance by converting the children's share of the family benefit to vouchers or payments directly to third parties to cover specific household expenses such as rent.

"The main point is that a cash benefit would not be paid to the family, but we would make some provision for the child," the Democrats say.

Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana, along with Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the minority leader, and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, wrote the bill.

Signaling his displeasure with the Democratic leadership, Senator Moynihan was not in the room when a half-dozen senators unveiled their proposal at a news conference earlier this month.

Mr. Moynihan had already decided to go it alone with his own bill, which would preserve and expand the 1988 act at an added cost of $8 billion over five years.

Nearly a week after the Democrats made public their proposal, which has not yet been introduced, Mr. Moynihan called it "a good bill." But he dodged a question on whether he would vote for it, saying, "We're still working on strategy."

Declines to comment

He would not be interviewed for this article. But aides say he will vote for the Democratic alternative, even though he is firmly opposed to ending the welfare entitlement as the bill would do.

"He'll do it for team spirit," explained Mr. O'Donnell when asked how the senator could support something he strongly opposes.

Mr. Moynihan is also the victim of timing that robbed him of considerable leverage just as welfare moved to the front burner.

Two years ago, he became chairman of the Finance Committee, which handles welfare legislation, thereby acquiring power to shape the nation's assistance for the poor.

President Clinton had won the election after campaigning to "end welfare as we know it" -- a promise that Mr. Moynihan says the chief executive should not have made because "the only way to end welfare as we know it is to demolish it."

Mr. Moynihan urged the president to pursue welfare reform, but Mr. Clinton chose health care instead. The president did send a welfare bill to Capitol Hill a year ago. But Congress, absorbed in the health care debate, put it aside.

Then came the 1994 Republican landslide that snatched Mr. Moynihan's chairmanship from him as it moved welfare to the fore.

His influence drained away, he watches in dismay and disbelief.

"He just told me he is profoundly depressed by what is happening," Sen. Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, said last week.

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