WASHINGTON -- Signaling the end of a 60-year federal guarantee of aid to the poor, President Clinton announced yesterday that he would sign landmark legislation to shift responsibility for welfare to the states.
The bill passed the House hours later by a vote of 328-101, more lopsided than had been expected before Clinton's announcement.
Senate approval is expected today.
The president said he believes the bill he is signing is flawed but much improved over two earlier, more stringent Republican versions that he vetoed -- and far preferable to the existing welfare program and its "cycle of dependency."
"A long time ago, I concluded that the current welfare system undermines the basic values of work, responsibility and family," Clinton said.
"When I ran for president four years ago, I pledged to end welfare as we know it. Today, the Congress will vote on legislation that gives us a chance to live up to that promise."
The legislation would:
* Limit lifetime welfare assistance to five years and require able-bodied adults to work after two years, although states could except up to 20 percent of recipients from this requirement on a "hardship" basis.
* Replace the current Aid to Families with Dependent Children system with lump sums to the states, which could set up their own eligibility requirements.
* Allow states to deny Medicaid to adults who lose welfare benefits because of a failure to meet work requirements.
* Tighten restrictions on children's eligibility for Supplemental Security Income disability benefits to try to weed out abuses by those who are not truly disabled.
* Require states to deduct benefits from welfare mothers who refuse to help identify the fathers.
* Bar legal immigrants from receiving food stamps or Social Security benefits unless they are military veterans or have lived in the United States for 10 years, and allow states to deny Medicaid benefits to those who immigrate after the bill is enacted.
Noting that when the current system was enacted 61 years ago, a typical recipient was an unskilled widow of a miner killed in an industrial accident -- not generations of never-married women -- Clinton said it was high time for change.
"Today, we have an historic opportunity to make welfare what it was meant to be: a second chance, not a way of life," he said.
Public wants this change
Although Clinton's decision was denounced by liberals and his motives were derided by Republicans, the political calculations by both sides were the same: The public wants this change, and in agreeing to it, Clinton has boosted his already high-flying re-election campaign against Bob Dole.
"It's bad news for Bob Dole," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat.
"I think this president will do anything to get re-elected, including eliminating entitlements," said Rep. Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican.
Republicans, including Dole, complained that the president had come on board now purely for political reasons.
But they acknowledged that this move is a winner for the president.
"We knew, when it got close to the election, that this president would choose political expediency as he always does," said Rep. Tillie Fowler, a Florida Republican.
Dole himself displayed a biting wit, quipping, "The first 100 days of the Dole administration have begun 97 days before the election."
"While I cannot applaud the rationale behind the president's swiftly changing positions, I commend him for finally climbing on board the Dole welfare reform proposal," he said.
"Now, as the election nears, the president has finally chosen to endorse our welfare reform bill -- a bill so similar to legislation that he has already twice vetoed."
Dole, the former Senate majority leader, was free to take credit for the bill, just as the president did.
But both sides appeared to recognize that this issue could be used effectively by Dole only if the president had heeded liberals in his own party and vetoed the bill.
The mood at Dole headquarters after the president's announcement was one of gloom.
At the White House, by contrast, even one of the bill's most
ardent opponents, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, put on a smiling face as she briefed reporters on some provisions in the bill that soften its impact on the poor -- and that were added by the administration.
Despite his famous 1992 pledge to "end welfare as we know it," Clinton's record on welfare reform was perceived by Republicans as his Achilles' heel as he ran for re-election.
Slow to act
After assuming office, his administration took 17 months to propose a welfare reform plan -- a version supported by neither congressional Republicans nor Democrats.
After Republicans took over Congress in 1994, they made welfare reform a top priority.
fTC Last winter, however, Clinton twice vetoed their version, saying it would take too much money out of the welfare system and would prove a hardship to poor children.
A third veto would have occurred in the bright light of a presidential campaign and would have risked putting Clinton at odds with some 90 percent of American voters, polls show.
Dole had already served notice that he considered welfare reform one of Clinton's most obvious vulnerabilities.
In almost every campaign stop, he reminded voters of the president's pledge to reform welfare, and of his two vetoes.
This worried several White House political operatives, but such liberal advisers as Shalala, George Stephanopoulos and Harold Ickes argued that the president could portray the Republican version of welfare reform as too extreme.
So did outside groups and advisers, ranging from AFL-CIO President John Sweeney to Children's Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman.
Added to those voices were congressional Democrats, many of them members of the Black Caucus, who worried that many states would not keep their "safety nets" intact for the poorest and most helpless Americans, namely the children on welfare.
"The Republicans would force 2 million into poverty, and my president will only throw 1 million into poverty," Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat, told his House colleagues yesterday.
"This a sad day," added Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat.
"We have a president who, along with his wife, have spent much of their public life trying to help children. Unfortunately, this president has joined the Republicans now in making children the victims."
In the end, the House Democrats split evenly, 98-98, and Republicans supported the bill overwhelmingly. Every member of the Maryland delegation, except Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, voted in favor.
Independent observers differed about the wisdom of this approach to welfare reform, but not on the political impact.
"The point of it is to kill off this notion of Clinton as a big-government liberal," said Washington political analyst Robert Lichter.
"It's very shrewd."
"I wonder why he feels the need to sign it, in light of the distance between he and Dole," said Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas.
"But you can't argue with the political success of it."
Pub Date: 8/01/96