White House wary on welfare reform with Democratic Senate

Prospects for major reform in America's welfare programs next year have become significantly dimmer in the past six weeks, several analysts are saying privately. The Democratic capture of the Senate, they say, is causing some in the White House to think twice about sending major domestic proposals to Congress.

These same analysts say segments of two recent White House proposals relating to welfare reform threaten the stability of the fragile liberal-conservative coalition that is the key to successful national reform.

The White House is reportedly wary about proposing major welfare changes with the Senate about to switch to Democratic control. Conservatives in the Reagan administration, one analyst says, are worried that any reform proposal would be altered by Democratic liberals to become ``a benefit-laden Christmas tree'' of proposals to aid the poor, irrespective of effectiveness or cost.

This view parallels another concern within the administration, namely, that asking Congress to add a new program to medicare, as Health and Human Services Secretary Otis Bowen has recommended as one aspect of ``catastrophic'' health-care coverage, would open a Pandora's box. According to this view, which even liberals admit has justification, liberal Democrats who hold key congressional committee positions would then move to make medicare coverage much broader, at a significantly higher cost to the American taxpayer.

``Think about how they got tax reform,'' says one moderately conservative analyst, of the administration's tactics. ``They let the House pass whatever it wanted, and then they fixed it in the Senate.'' A similar scenario was probably anticipated for welfare reform, he says, but is out of the question now that the Republicans have lost the Senate.

Over the weekend a task force of the White House Domestic Policy Council recommended that President Reagan ask Congress for authority to permit states to experiment with their welfare programs, after obtaining specific federal approval. Not enough is known about what reforms should be instituted, the panel said, to permit the federal government to make dramatic changes in federal programs.

The document said changes should not be made piecemeal, but that the entire federal welfare system should be considered as a unit. It listed ``a labyrinth of 59 major federal welfare programs'' as providing the core of the federal effort, along with ``40 other federal low-income assistance programs.''

Besides the best known welfare programs - Aid to Families with Dependent Children, food stamps, and medicaid - the report listed programs with strong constituencies: three veterans' programs, three programs for older Americans, and the guaranteed college-student loan program. Irrespective of whether it is accurate to include these programs, groups represented by them and by others are almost certain to object to being considered as receiving welfare, says one analyst sympathetic to the administration proposal overall. He adds flatly: ``You wrap that all together, and you've got a proposal that cannot fly.''

The administration report on the family, made public a month ago, included segments relating to welfare that some analysts believe are counterproductive to gaining congressional accord for future proposals. Chairman of the working group that produced the report was Undersecretary of Education Gary Bauer.

Even some conservatives were privately uneasy about the inclusion of strong conservative rhetoric, such as blaming much of the problems of the American family upon decisions by past liberal courts.

At a time when conciliatory language would help gain congressional passage of any administration welfare-reform package, one conservative analyst noted, such rhetoric had the practical effect of driving a small wedge into the conservative-liberal coalition. The report, he said, ``does nothing to build on the emerging consensus, and may, in fact, set it back.''

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