PRESIDENT CLINTON'S acceptance of a compromise welfare bill engineered by moderate Republicans in the Senate will please neither doctrinaire liberals nor doctrinaire conservatives. But as a step toward reform of a system that is broke and needs fixing, it shows how government can work even with the White House and Congress under the control of opposing parties.
This does not mean, however, that the Senate formula will prevail even if it gains expected approval today. House Republicans, wedded to a more severe and restrictive version of welfare reform, will insist on some tougher provisions in conference committee. Then the focus will shift to Mr. Clinton and his veto pen. The president, at this stage, seems more eager to strike a deal on welfare than on Medicare, which makes sense politically because kids don't vote and seniors do. But there are limits to how much the social safety net should be shredded.
What cost conservatives their Senate majority was their attempt to tell states how to spend welfare money they would be receiving as block grants. For years, they had been decrying federal mandates aimed at achieving liberal objectives. So when they turned around and sought the same thing to achieve conservative goals, they suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of states rights rhetoric. To be sure, the moderate-liberal coalition prevailed in requiring states to maintain 80 percent of current welfare spending, but this was a matter with far less ideological content. Their block grants formula would save $43.5 billion over five years.
If Congress and the president can somehow work out a deal on welfare reform despite daunting legislative obstacles still ahead, it will mark a departure from the 60-year New Deal concept that government assistance to the jobless poor is a citizen's entitlement. Such entitlements -- in welfare, Medicare, Medicaid, veterans benefits, farm subsidies and the like -- share the blame along with unjustified raids on the revenue base for the soaring federal deficit.
The Senate compromise also is important in that it recognizes that government has to spend huge sums on child care if welfare recipients are to be motivated to enter the work force. Moderate GOP senators and Democrats joined in adding $3 billion over five years to the $5 billion earmarked for child care.
What could still block welfare reform are House GOP provisions denying cash assistance for teenage mothers and for children born to welfare recipients. But as an example of ideological overreach, this approach has alarmed pro-life groups fearful that such a crackdown would prod pregnant teenagers to go the abortion route. This should stand as a warning that beneficial welfare reform can succeed only if it is approached with caution and reason.