WASHINGTON -- Facing opposition from Republicans as well as Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole gave up yesterday on his goal of passing a welfare reform bill before the Senate recesses this weekend until September.
The decision was a setback for the Republicans and Mr. Dole, and it will make it more difficult for Congress to pass welfare reform this year. Overhauling welfare and giving states authority over it is central to the Republican agenda, and a top priority of Mr. Dole, the leading GOP presidential candidate.
After two days of debate on his proposed welfare overhaul, Mr. Dole pulled the bill off the floor, saying that he will continue to negotiate privately with his fellow Republicans in hopes of uniting them behind a compromise measure by the time the issue resurfaces in September. If he fails, however, there may not be enough time to deal with welfare reform.
"I think we're a little closer together on the Republican side than we were six or seven hours ago," said Mr. Dole, who made overtures yesterday to both the conservative and moderate wings of his party.
The Dole proposal would end six decades of guaranteed benefits to poor mothers and children, freeze spending at last year's level and turn over most welfare programs to the states to run.
Conservatives, led by Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, want tougher restrictions on use of the money, while moderates want more assurances that child care will be available to working mothers.
By the end of the week, Mr. Dole predicted that he would be "very, very close to having every Republican on board."
Rather than waste the remaining three days before the Senate goes on its summer recess, the majority leader said he would try to complete action on spending bills instead.
Work on the welfare bill will resume, Mr. Dole said, when the Senate returns to Washington on Sept. 5. At that point, the measure risks being caught up in other congressional budget action, which is supposed to be completed by Oct. 1, when the new fiscal year begins. The welfare legislation could be included in a broader bill to balance the budget, which might give President Clinton more leverage over it.
Senate Democrats, who have not yet agreed on a voting schedule for the welfare bill, were delighted with the delay. The minority party, which vigorously opposes the thrust of the Republican welfare proposal, was "not prepared to complete action" this week, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said yesterday.
"No one wants to hold it up; we just want a chance to be heard," said Mr. Daschle, who has offered an alternative proposal to the Dole bill that also requires welfare recipients to work but would maintain the guaranteed benefits. "We'd like to have both our bills put out before the American people to compare this summer," Mr. Daschle said.
Some Republicans blamed the Democrats for the delay, charging that their refusal to agree to a schedule constituted a stall.
"If they say 'no,' we won't get anything done," Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, said of the Democrats.
At this point, the Dole bill seems a victim not only of partisan warfare but also of the sheer complexity and divisiveness of the task. Much like Mr. Clinton's ambitious attempt last year to overhaul the nation's health care system, welfare reform is foundering in the Senate for lack of a consensus on a single approach.
Mr. Daschle said he thought, though, that Mr. Dole's prospects of success this year were better than Mr. Clinton's were on health care last year. One key difference is that the House has already passed its version of a welfare reform bill, putting pressure on the Senate to act that wasn't there for health care.
In addition, Mr. Dole appears to have made headway in negotiations with his fellow Republicans. Yesterday, he approached Mr. Gramm to discuss the possibility of addressing Mr. Gramm's demand that states be required to bar cash payments to unwed teen-age mothers and to deny additional benefits to welfare mothers who give birth to more children.
Mr. Dole is also considering amending his bill to address Mr. Gramm's insistence that welfare benefits be denied to immigrants, according to a Gramm aide.
"Some progress is being made," said Mr. Gramm, Mr. Dole's rival for the Republican presidential nomination. "I think we need to continue to work. We have 'reformed' welfare many times, but we have not changed it. I want this bill to be different."
While those talks are under way, Mr. Dole is also negotiating with GOP moderates who want to increase spending for child care under the bill and to require the states to continue making their own contributions to welfare programs.
Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican who belongs to the moderate group, said she expects a compromise to be reached on those points.