The governors got their wish -- now they're having second thoughts


WASHINGTON -- Only a year ago, the nation's governors were preaching the new Republican gospel of "devolution" in a big way -- having the feds turn over to the states major programs like welfare that they said could be better and more cheaply handed at their level. The Republican-led Congress obliged.

Now, the governors are biting their tongues. Finding that fulfillment of their wish is bringing financial and moral hardship on many of their states through cuts on federal aid to the poor and to legal immigrants, they first wanted Congress to reopen last year's drastic welfare-cutting bill when the ink was hardly dry.

But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, after meeting with key governors, made it bluntly clear that it wasn't going to happen. That bill, which President Clinton swallowed in a gulp to the chagrin of liberal Democrats who clung to the hope that he was still one of them, was a cornerstone of the GOP conservative agenda last year. All hell would have broken loose on Capitol Hill had there been any give on modifying it.

Instead, the governors, despite pressures within their own ranks from brethren from the larger states like California, New York, Florida and Texas that bear the brunt of legal and illegal immigration, have settled for calling for negotiations with Congress for some kind of relief.

Senator Lott, in addition to wanting to hold the line for budget-balancing reasons, doesn't want the governors, Republican as well as Democratic, appearing to be on the same side of the welfare issue as President Clinton, who in the 1996 campaign vowed to fight for changes in the welfare bill he had previously digested for self-serving political reasons.

Here's the irony

One irony is that three of the four governors who feel most strongly about opening up the welfare legislative debate again are Republicans -- Pete Wilson of California, George Pataki of New York and George Bush of Texas.

Governor Wilson especially has been griping endlessly to President Clinton that the burden of immigration is financially strangling his state. He has fought, unsuccessfully so far, to have the feds assume the costs of educational and welfare benefits to illegal immigrants in California on the ground that it is a federal responsibility to defend the state's border with Mexico over which illegals regularly stream into the state.

One governor at the Republican National Governors Association meeting here over the weekend professed that many of his colleagues did not grasp last year the burden that would be placed on the governors of large, immigration-prone states. If so, they must have had their ears stuffed, because Messrs. Wilson and Pataki and Democrat Lawton Chiles of Florida all have been loudly lamenting the situation for years.

Some of the Republican governors who were most gung ho for the transfer of federal responsibilities like welfare to the states, such as John Engler of Michigan, acknowledge the inconsistency of going back to Congress for more help now, but hope that some relief can come their way without totally revisiting the welfare can of worms.

Soft schmooze, no pledge

President Clinton, meeting with the governors Monday, schmoozed them with soft words of willingness to listen to their concerns -- but no pledge to go to the mat on a welfare issue on which he has professed to be in agreement with them. "I want you to feel that you can always call this White House," he crooned, "and will have, even if we don't agree, someone who understands your concerns and will do his best to address them."

Himself a former president of the governors' association, Mr. Clinton does have first-hand acquaintance with the problems of governors, and his election in 1992 was greeted with considerable appreciation by his old colleagues. But he now faces a Republican congressional leadership that has its heels dug in against further welfare reform that could erode what it achieved last year, and the president doesn't sound as if he wants a major fight over it.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 2/05/97

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