WASHINGTON -- The Senate approved a comprehensive welfare bill yesterday that would end the long-standing federal guarantee of cash assistance for the nation's poorest children and give states vast new power to run their own welfare and work programs with lump sums of federal money.
The vote was 74-24, as 23 Democratic senators joined 51 Republicans in support of the bill, which calls for the most sweeping changes in welfare policy since the New Deal. Maryland's Democratic senators, Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, opposed the bill.
The House approved a similar measure last week.
The Senate approved only two of the four amendments sought by President Clinton, who said he would insist on further "improvements" as a condition of signing the legislation.
Campaigning in California, Clinton welcomed changes by the Senate but said more were needed.
"You can put wings on a pig, but you don't make it an eagle," the president said. "We want real welfare reform. Today the Senate took some major steps to improve the bill going through Congress." And he said, "If we can keep this progress up, if we can make it bipartisan, then we can have a real welfare reform bill that honors work and protects children."
On the other hand, Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican, said: "History will praise this day. A system that has failed in every aspect will now be thrown away. We'll start over with a new system that has a chance of giving people an opportunity instead of a handout."
But Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, an Illinois Democrat, said: "I believe that the Senate will rue the day that we passed this legislation. This day, in the name of reform, the Senate will do actual violence to poor children, putting millions of them into poverty who were not in poverty before." She added, "This bill is election-year politics and rhetoric raised to the level of policy."
Democratic support for the bill eroded yesterday as the Senate rejected several Democratic amendments, generally on party lines. The Senate Democratic leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, voted against the bill after hinting last week that he might vote for it. The Senate measure, like the one passed last week by the House, would impose a five-year lifetime limit on cash assistance payments to any family, and states would be allowed to set stricter time limits.
In a surprise yesterday, the Senate narrowly rejected one of the four amendments sought by Clinton, a proposal that would have allowed states to provide vouchers or other forms of noncash assistance to families denied cash benefits because of the time limits. The vouchers could have been used to obtain diapers, cribs, clothing, medicine or school supplies for children.
The House version of the bill does not allow the use of federal money for such vouchers, and Republicans made sure that vouchers would not be permitted under the Senate measure, either.
Democrats failed to win approval for another of the four amendments, the one that would have allowed public assistance and social services for legal immigrants, who are denied aid under the Republican bill.
But Democrats prevailed on two other amendments for which the White House has lobbied. One would guarantee Medicaid coverage for people who might otherwise lose health insurance because of new restrictions on eligibility for welfare.
The other would retain the federal guarantee of food stamps for the poor, denying states the opportunity to set eligibility criteria and benefit levels for food assistance financed by the federal government.
Moments before the final vote, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi said: "If you really want welfare reform, this is it. This may be the last opportunity."
Welfare has become a major issue in this year's elections. Clinton has said repeatedly that he wants to sign a welfare bill, but he has sent mixed signals on the latest version.
Lott said Republicans would win, regardless of whether Clinton accepted the bill. "If he signs it, the country will be the beneficiary," Lott said yesterday. "If he doesn't, he'll have to explain why."
One of the Democrats backing the measure, Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana, said: "This bill is not perfect, but it is a major step in the right direction. It is a major improvement over the current system."
Sen. William V. Roth Jr., a Delaware Republican, summarized the case for the bill this way: "Welfare was never meant to be a way of life. It was meant as a temporary helping hand, a safety net to be used for a few months."
But Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat and a longtime student of social welfare policy who led opposition to the bill, said, "Senators such as I cannot conceive that the party of Social Security and of civil rights could support this legislation, which commences to repeal, to undermine, both."
Moynihan and five other Democratic senators said Clinton should veto the bill.
In September, the Senate passed a somewhat similar welfare bill, 87-12. Clinton signaled support for that measure but vetoed the final version later, saying it would impoverish more than 1 million children.
The new bill goes now to a conference committee composed of negotiators from the House and the Senate, who will try to resolve differences between the chambers. Republicans said they wanted to complete work on the bill by the end of next week so they could send it to Clinton.
Several Democrats who voted for the bill said they had done so mainly to move it to the next stage of the legislative process, and they said they might change their votes if protections for children were dropped in negotiations with the House.
Pub Date: 7/24/96