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House Republicans Unveil Welfare Reform Legislation

By Elizabeth Shogren
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

Launching what could become the defining debate of the 104th Congress, House Republicans unveiled Thursday welfare reform legislation calling for more extensive reductions in cash assistance and a more circumscribed role for the federal government than plans favored by President Clinton and congressional Democrats.

While the broad outlines of the GOP legislation have been apparent for some time, the final measure includes a few new elements that Democrats characterized as particularly harsh, such as a provision that would significantly decrease the number of disabled children eligible for cash assistance.

The bill's introduction sets in motion a landmark struggle over the extent to which Congress should scale back the government-administered safety net that increasingly is perceived as contributing to the cycle of joblessness, poverty and despair it was designed to ameliorate.

"The welfare state failed because for too many years Congress equated compassion with money," said Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla. chairman of a key House panel that could begin voting on the measure as early as next week.

The GOP initiative would reduce federal funding of welfare programs by $40 billion over five years, with some $15 billion coming from the consolidation of about 50 programs into three block grants to be administered by the states. In what would represent a dramatic change in the way the government regards its obligation to poor families, the measure would end welfare's protected status as a federal "entitlement" that promises benefits to all who qualify, regardless of the cost to taxpayers.

As a concession to cost-conscious governors, however, Republican leaders agreed to create a "rainy day" fund that would set aside money for states to use if a recession or other economic calamity causes future welfare rolls to swell.

The GOP measure moves to the forefront of a national debate over the desirability and affordability of such programs as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which provides cash assistance to some 5 million families at an annual cost to the Treasury of $17 million.

It is regarded as a tougher approach to reform than the president's reform plan, which actually would increase government spending rather than reduce it. Like the GOP plan, the Clinton proposal is designed to prod some recipients off welfare and into the work force, but it would include funds to help prepare recipients for employment and, if necessary, pay them to take public jobs.

The Republican plan, in contrast, would require states to cut off cash assistance to most unemployed recipients after two years, with no guarantee of a government job, and would allow states to cut them off even sooner. In addition, the measure would require states to deny cash payments to unmarried teen-aged mothers, forbid benefit increases when welfare families have additional children, and eliminate assistance altogether for legal immigrants.

"Much like tough love, our bill faces welfare's most difficult problems directly and sends a powerful signal that the government can not and will not solve everyone's problems," Shaw said in an address to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the venue he chose to unveil the GOP plan.

"The Republican proposal will be strong on punishing children, and will be weak on getting their parents to work," said Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., a Democrat who serves on the House Ways and Means subcommittee chaired by Shaw.

Administration officials and many congressional Democrats criticized the proposal as too cruel in its treatment of children and too lax in its efforts to move parents into the work force.

Shaw was adamant in his defense of the bill's more controversial provisions, such as the elimination of cash payments to unmarried teens. "If American people believe - and they do - that it is wrong for unmarried teenagers to go on welfare to have children, why then does our welfare system today pay unmarried teen-agers cash benefits?" Shaw said. "It is time for society to send a signal to our teen-agers: Do not sleep with someone and expect the taxpayers to bail you out if you have a child."

Administration officials and congressional Democrats argue that moving people from welfare to work will cost money in the short run because the government has an obligation to provide training, job placement and child care services. Because the Republican bill contains little to help with that transition, they said it is likely to dump people from the welfare rolls without ensuring they can find and keep jobs.