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Senate Passes Welfare Overhaul; Clinton Hesitates to Approve Bill

By Barbara Vobejda and Helen Dewar
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

The Senate Tuesday endorsed a dramatic overhaul of the nation's welfare system, adopting legislation that would end the federal commitment to provide assistance to any eligible poor American and limit benefits to five years.

The bill, approved on a bipartisan vote of 74 to 24, is slightly less restrictive than a welfare measure approved by the House last week. But the question of whether President Clinton will sign the bill remains open.

The president, on a campaign swing through California, said the bill had been improved in the Senate, but he urged Congress to make more changes. "I just don't want to do anything that hurts kids," he said. "I'm going to keep working with (the Congress) We'll see if we can end up with something that is acceptable."

Like the House bill, the Senate version turns control of welfare programs over to the states and replaces the current system of open-ended federal spending with annual lump-sum payments, or block grants, to the states. It would eliminate assistance to most legal immigrants who have not become citizens, require most adult welfare recipients to work and reduce projected spending on the programs by about $60 billion over the next six years.

The bill, said Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., "will end welfare as a life, a way of life. It is historic. If you really want welfare reform, this is it."

Lott said Congress would send the bill to Clinton before it leaves for its month-long summer recess at the end of next week. And he predicted the president would sign the legislation.

"If he doesn't sign this one, it will be the third one he's vetoed in eight months," Lott said. "You can't say you're for (welfare reform) and then say, "But not that one, not that one, not that one."

Although Clinton has said he wants to sign welfare legislation, the versions that now have emerged from the House and Senate contain provisions he has said are too harsh on legal immigrants and do not provide adequate protections for the children of welfare recipients.

Several Democrats said Tuesday that Senate changes aimed at softening the impact of the bill could make it easier for Clinton to sign it. But the president still faces a difficult political dilemma. If he signs the measure, he risks criticism from within the liberal base of the Democratic Party. If he vetoes it, Republicans are poised to accuse him of going back on his word and selling out to the Democratic left.