As the Senate tackles welfare reform in earnest it is clear that, whatever the outcome, "welfare as we know it" is no longer an option. A Republican bill, delayed several weeks while Majority Leader Robert Dole tried to quell dissension within his ranks, is now on the floor, while Democratic senators are offering their own alternative.
Meanwhile, conservative Republicans are mounting another effort to deny cash benefits to unmarried teen-age mothers and to prevent benefit increases to welfare recipients who have more children. This zeal, however, has split the ranks, as Catholic bishops and others concerned that punitive provisions will increase abortions have sided with Republican moderates.
The Democrats are hoping that divisions among the Republicans will give them an opening to push their version of welfare reform, a bill that by traditional Democratic standards is tough indeed. A Congress ago, it would have probably been enacted. While the Democrats retain the tenet that access to welfare should remain entitlement to those who qualify, their proposal has strict work requirements and places a lifetime limit of five years on aid to any recipient.
This approach has the advantage of maintaining a federal presence -- particularly federal "maintenance of effort" requirements that states not use federal funds to free up state money for other purposes. But as was apparent earlier this week when President Clinton and Senator Dole spoke before the nation's governors, the political climate may no longer leave room for the Democratic alternative, whatever its attractions.
There should, however, be room for compromise in all this. It may well be that the concept of a federal entitlement is no longer politically tenable. If so, perhaps the Democrats could concede that point in return for Republican acceptance of the need for some kind of maintenance of effort requirement on the states. One of the biggest fears of welfare reform, particularly among local and state officials, is that states historically disinclined to fund welfare adequately will use the excuse of welfare reform to cut back on state spending on social programs. Such a compromise -- block grants with tighter requirements for state contributions -- might be a palatable outcome.
One footnote: While most governors are entranced with the idea of more flexibility, the savings from this approach will be much smaller for Maryland. Here, state reforms have already squeezed out the administrative savings that other states are counting on to offset federal cutbacks in coming years. In that sense, Maryland is a big loser under the block grant approach.