WASHINGTON -- In an atmosphere laced with Republican presidential politics, the Senate began an uphill quest for consensus yesterday on how to overhaul the nation's welfare system.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the leading Republican challenger to President Clinton, hopes to win passage this week of a proposal that would end six decades of guaranteed benefits to poor mothers and children and leave it up to the states to determine eligibility.
"Each of us . . . knows the current welfare system has failed," Mr. Dole said as the floor debate began yesterday. "It has failed American taxpayers . . . and it has failed those Americans it was designed to serve, trapping them into a system that does not encourage work, often penalizes families, and that ultimately leaves them with no hope."
But working against the majority leader are Senate Democrats allied with Mr. Clinton. They have labeled Mr. Dole's bill "phony" because it imposes work requirements on welfare mothers but provides no money for child care or other support.
"The Dole bill simply dumps all the problems on the states," which would be encouraged to deny welfare benefits to the poor whether they have jobs or not, argued Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. "This is phony reform."
Mr. Gramm says the Dole proposal doesn't go far enough in blocking benefits to unwed mothers and immigrants.
'More and more children'
"We have to stop giving people more and more money to have more and more children on welfare," he said.
Mr. Dole stopped short of predicting victory. "I can't stand up and say this is going to pass; the bottom line is you've got to have the votes."
He maintained, however, that there are "51, 61, maybe even 70 votes out there somewhere" for welfare reform if his colleagues are as committed as they say to "substantial, meaningful change."
For Mr. Dole, who is running for president largely by portraying himself as an effective leader, gaining passage of a welfare reform bill is a top priority.
Four months after the House passed a rewrite of the welfare laws as part of its "Contract with America," Mr. Dole came up with a version that he hopes can survive in the Senate.
So far, he has signed up 32 of his fellow Republicans as co-sponsors for a measure that resulted from weeks of negotiations between the conservative and moderate wings of his party.
Like the House bill, the Dole proposal would cut $70 billion out of welfare programs over the next seven years by freezing welfare spending at last year's level.
The Dole measure also followed the House lead in denying disability payments to alcoholics and drug abusers, if that is the source of their disability, as well as to to non-citizens and to children of modest disability.
"Hopefully, this is an issue that can bring us together in this debate," said Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican.
In his floor speech, he quoted from a series published in The Sun early this year that documented the ways that some people take advantage of the disability system.
But Mr. Dole's bill drops most of the tight eligibility requirements for welfare adopted by the House. Instead, his bill turns the money over to the states to spend mostly as they see fit.
Among the few restrictions in the Dole bill are requirements that welfare recipients must begin working within two years of receiving benefits and leave the welfare rolls within five years.
Senate Democrats, who are united in their opposition to the Dole plan, contend its work requirements are meaningless because the bill doesn't provide welfare mothers with child care, job training and other services they might reasonably need to get and hold a job.
"If you have skills, you won't get a job; if you don't have transportation, you can't get to a job; if you don't have child care, you won't be able to leave your kids," said Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat.
Sixteen Democrats are co-sponsoring a bill offered by Mr. Daschle that would cut current welfare spending by $30 billion -- less than half of what the Republicans are seeking. The Daschle bill would spend about $10 billion of the savings on work support programs, such as child care.
The Democrats may offer their bill as a substitute for Mr. Dole's.
Their best chance of success, however, will likely come by offering amendments to various provisions of the Dole bill, which might be supported by moderate Republicans.
Welfare reform is such a politically popular concept that the Democrats have signaled they don't intend to filibuster if they don't get their way.
Too weak on unwed mothers
More troublesome for Mr. Dole is the attack from the Republican right, led by Senator Gramm, who contends the Dole bill isn't tough enough on unwed mothers and immigrants.
"This is only marginal change," Mr. Gramm complained yesterday. "It does not have a binding work requirement, and it continues to invite people to come to America, not with their sleeves rolled up but with their hand out."
Like the Democrats, Mr. Gramm is expected to devote most of his energies this week to winning support for amendments to the Dole proposal.
Among his top concerns will be winning a ban on giving extra welfare benefits to mothers who have additional children on welfare.
"I believe without this change we are not going to fundamentally change the poverty problem in America," he said.
Mr. Dole agreed to one concession to Mr. Gramm yesterday by including in his bill a House provision that would require states to sanction welfare recipients who refuse to work by reducing their benefits to reflect the period of time not worked.