WASHINGTON -- Under election-year pressure, President Clinton and the Republican-led Congress appear to be on the verge of an agreement to end the 61-year-old federal guarantee of welfare for anyone who qualifies.
Republican leaders settled yesterday on a welfare reform bill that they believe makes enough concessions to the president to assure that this third version of the measure will be signed by him. Clinton vetoed the first two.
"It looks like we are coming to the end of what has been a very long road," said Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., the Florida Republican who is among the chief architects of the legislation. "If the president is looking for small victories in this bill, he can find them and a reason to sign it."
Clinton, who as a candidate in 1992 pledged to "end welfare as we know it," has long criticized the Republicans' approach as too harsh on welfare recipients and their children.
But he hinted strongly yesterday that he was inclined to sign the latest measure, which congressional leaders say will be on his desk by the end of this week. A House vote is expected today, with the Senate following tomorrow.
"From what I understand, they've made some good progress today," the president told reporters. "It's getting better, and I hope that we can work it out. I really do.
The bill would end the guarantee, established in the depths of the Depression, to provide cash assistance to poor women and children. It would require able-bodied adults to work within two years, set a lifetime limit of five years of welfare per family, and cut off most benefits to legal immigrants, in order to save $55 billion over six years. Federal welfare money would be turned over to the states in "block grants," which the states would be free to spend as they saw fit.
Partly in response to Clinton, the measure contains an additional $22 billion in child-care money and no longer would deny benefits to additional children born to women on welfare.
The Republican lawmakers also agreed, as Clinton had hoped, to continue operating the food-stamp program at the federal level, "to make sure that nobody goes hungry" while the welfare system in flux, said Rep. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican.
"There are a lot of things in the bill I'd like to sign," Clinton said. "I like the child-care money, I like the increased child support enforcement. But I don't want to see harm come to the children of this country."
The Republican lawmakers rejected Clinton's suggestion that the bill provide vouchers to aid children whose parents lose welfare benefits.
Negotiators also dropped a provision in the House version of the bill to deny Medicaid health benefits to legal immigrants. That provision had been opposed by Clinton. The latest bill gives states the option of denying such aid.
Supporters of the measure contend that it would free the nation's welfare recipients from the destructive cycle of poverty and dependence that can sometimes last generations.
"Welfare is a trap for too many women," said Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, a Connecticut Republican who worked on the measure. Because of the work requirement, she said, "Women are not only going to be independent; they are going to be proud of themselves."
House Majority Leader Dick Armey expressed confidence that the bill would become law.
"He's told America since he ran for president in 1992 that he wanted to end welfare as we know it," Armey said of Clinton. "Here's his chance. He's going to sign it this time because he's up for re-election."
Opponents of the legislation contend that it could push up to an additional 1 million children into poverty. They complained that the final measure reflected only minuscule concessions to Clinton and retained some unacceptably harsh provisions.
"The outcome is disappointing," Robert Greenstein, directory of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said in an analysis.
He complained, in particular, about "an extraordinarily draconian provision" that would limit childless adults to three months of food stamps during a three-year period unless they worked at least part time.
Clinton is still under intense pressure from liberal groups that have supported him as a candidate, including the Children's Defense Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union.
They want him to veto any version of welfare reform that comes out of the Republican Congress because they object to the central thrust of ending the federal welfare guarantee.
John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, urged Clinton to show "the courage and the compassion to veto." The labor federation has emerged this year as a political force, with a $35 million campaign that targets Republicans.
But Clinton and the Republican lawmakers have each made clear they are eager to show voters this fall that they have finally achieved progress on a top priority of millions of voters.
For the president, signing the welfare reform bill offers the additional benefit of robbing his Republican presidential challenger, Bob Dole, of a issue to use against the Democratic incumbent.
Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who voted against the bill when it passed the Senate last week, sounded optimistic yesterday about its prospects of finally being enacted. He suggested that Democrats in Congress might agree to help pass the bill and then return next year to try to fix the elements they don't like.
"There are a number of things that can be done to improve the legislation," Daschle said. "The question in my mind is, how far can we go this year? I think we have to realize we are not going to solve all the problems related to welfare reform quickly or in one bill."
Welfare reform bill
Highlights of the welfare reform bill in Congress
* Ends the 61-year guarantee of aid to poor women and children.
* Requires able-bodied adults to begin working within two years.
* Cuts off benefits after five years in most cases.
* Sets tougher rules for poor children seeking disability aid.
* Lets states decide how to spend federal welfare money.
* Denies food stamps and disability payments to legal immigrants.
* Allows states to deny Medicaid to legal immigrants.
* Excludes poor children of illegal immigrants from nutrition programs.
Pub Date: 7/31/96