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Senate votes to end welfare guarantee Recipients face deadline to get job, do without benefits; Maryland senators split; 87-12 vote marks major advance for reform bill


The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities was described incorrectly in an article yesterday as a "labor-backed advocacy group." In fact, the center, which receives little assistance from labor, describes itself as a liberal research group.

The Sun regrets the error.

WASHINGTON -- Reversing 60 years of social policy, the Republican-led Senate voted overwhelmingly yesterday to end guaranteed welfare benefits for the poor.

The action was a major step toward passage of a welfare reform law this year, a top priority of both political parties.

The measure approved yesterday, similar to one already passed by the House, would require welfare recipients to get a job within two years and would cut off cash benefits after five years.

House and Senate negotiators will shortly begin work on a final version to send to President Clinton, who has indicated he would sign a measure similar to the Senate version.

"We are not only fixing welfare, we are revolutionizing it," said Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, who spent weeks juggling the demands of moderate and conservative colleagues to win support for the measure.

"We are closing the books on a 6-decades-old system that may have been well-intentioned but failed the American taxpayer and failed those it was designed to serve."

The vote was 87-12, with all but one Republican and most Democrats voting in favor. Mary--Welfare, land's senators split, with Barbara A. Mikulski voting in favor and Paul S. Sarbanes against.

Democratic opponents protested that the legislation was little more than a mean-spirited assault on the poor.

A total of 14 million impoverished Americans, two-thirds of them children, currently receive monthly payments under the federal welfare program.

"I think there's a great danger that people on the edge will just fall off," said Mr. Sarbanes, one of 11 Democrats who voted against the bill. "There are no adequate provisions for an economic downturn. Either terrible things will happen, or the governors will be down there telling us this just doesn't work."

The Republican welfare measure, which gives states new power to run their own programs, builds on reforms under way in Maryland and elsewhere. But sharp differences remain between the House and Senate versions.

A key fight is likely to be waged over a House provision that would deny benefits for children born to mothers on welfare, which was killed in the Senate with the help of GOP moderates.

That was the issue that cost Mr. Dole the support of Sen. Lauch Faircloth, of North Carolina, the lone Republican to vote against the measure. He contended it would do nothing to address the problem of illegitimacy.

But yesterday's vote -- with its hearty Democratic backing -- was a clear signal that Congress is ready to do away with one strand of what President Ronald Reagan once called the social "safety net."

Under the legislation, fixed limits would be set, for the first time, on federal welfare spending. The money would be provided in block grants to states, which could then sweeten welfare benefits with local funds, or not, as they choose.

Republicans estimated that the Senate bill would cut at least $60 billion out of welfare programs over seven years. Those "savings" have already been counted toward the Republican drive to balance the federal budget by 2002.

Ms. Mikulski, among the Democrats who worked with moderate Republicans to soften some of the restrictions imposed in the House version, said she believes the centrists "made enormous progress."

The "moderate-to-pragmatist" coalition, as she described it, added millions to the bill for child care, required states to continue providing welfare benefits within at least 80 percent of the current level, and removed a House provision that would deny cash benefits to teen-age mothers.

Those Senate changes could be particularly important to Maryland, which is among 34 states that already have sought federal permission to experiment with programs designed to move people from welfare to work, Ms. Mikulski said. Maryland would get about $13 million in additional child-care money, she said.

The Senate requirement that states maintain at least 80 percent of their current effort could also protect Maryland from an influx of poor families from other states that have dropped benefits below the Maryland level, she said.

"Don't get me wrong, there are still a lot of yellow flashing lights in the bill for me," she said. "But after all those changes, I felt it was important to show our support and give heart to the moderates in the conference."

Yesterday's action was the latest sign that the president and members of both parties in Congress are responding to widespread pressure for reform of the welfare system. Opinion polls show that more than 70 percent of Americans believe welfare payments shouldn't last indefinitely.

Mr. Clinton campaigned on the issue in 1992, pledging to "end welfare as we know it." But he did not submit a plan until more than a year after his inauguration, then failed to push for its passage.

It wasn't until the Republicans won control of Capitol Hill in last fall's election that welfare reform legislation began to gain momentum in Congress.

Along with Mr. Dole, his potential GOP rival next year, Mr. Clinton now seems determined to get some kind of welfare reform package signed into law.

Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, who is challenging Mr. Dole for the GOP presidential nomination, threatened yesterday to vote against the final version of the bill unless it limits benefits for children born on welfare.

The continuing fight among Republicans over that issue is unlikely to keep the welfare reform measure from winning final approval, however, according to those on both sides of the debate.

"All the politicians figure no bill is worse for them than a fatally flawed bill would be," said Gary Bauer, head of the conservative Family Research Council, who argues that a family cap is essential to real reform. "So I expect that a flawed bill will pass."

Liberal activists didn't even put up much of a fight against the welfare reform bill in the Senate.

"I think some people feel beaten down because they are having to fight on so many fronts. They are disheartened," said Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a labor-backed advocacy group. "But that doesn't mean the Senate bill is moderate. . . . These are profound changes."

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