WASHINGTON - Half the Senate, including many Democrats, called on the majority leader yesterday to schedule a debate on re-authorizing the welfare program created by an innovative 1996 law that expires in three weeks.
In a letter Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the senators said the program should be extended for five years, with more money for child care.
In May, the House passed a welfare bill along the lines favored by President Bush. It would impose stricter work requirements on recipients and provide a modest increase in money for child care.
The Senate Finance Committee approved a substantially different bill in June, 13-8. It calls for a larger increase in child care spending and appears to increase work requirements beyond the current law, but not as much as the House bill.
The Finance Committee bill would expand the definition of work activities, letting states count added education and training as work. Some Republicans, including Bush, say that would eviscerate the work requirements.
The full Senate has yet to act, and Senate leaders have not disclosed any firm plans to take the issue to the floor. Daschle has indicated a willingness to call up the bill, but the schedule is packed with other legislation.
If Congress takes no action, the government will have no legal authority to make welfare payments to the states after Sept. 30. States have been receiving $16.5 billion a year for the main program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Fifty senators signed the letter, which said Congress should re-authorize the entire program this year.
"The bipartisan bill reported out of the Finance Committee is a sensible bill to bring to the floor," it says. "It provides some new resources and broadened flexibility for states so that they can continue to improve upon existing programs to help families make a successful transition from welfare to work."
The letter was signed by 40 Democrats, nine Republicans and the sole independent, Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont.
Sen. Blanche Lambert Lincoln, an Arkansas Democrat, said: "We've made a great investment of time and energy in this bill. I'd hate to see it die."
Tommy G. Thompson, secretary of health and human services, said yesterday that he had requested a meeting with Daschle to emphasize the importance of re-authorizing the welfare program.