For the past 20 years the prospects for national welfare reform in the United States have alternately waxed and waned. Today they suddenly seem bright again after several months of near eclipse. Two factors have made the difference.
First, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, the Democratic welfare reform leader in the Senate and the author of the key Senate vehicle for reform, is seeking bipartisan backing and is attempting to tailor his legislation to gain the broadest possible support among senators.
Second, the White House has reentered the welfare reform discussion.
Details of Senator Moynihan's proposal are not yet public, and some may change in the process of gaining broad approval; but it can be said that it would produce substantial changes in current welfare law and procedures.
The bill would strengthen state child-support efforts and require welfare parents to make a greater effort to obtain jobs and take primary responsibility for supporting their children.
The proposal would establish a new job-training and education program. It would put most of its emphasis on getting off the welfare rolls those recipients who have been there the longest - those sometimes referred to as the growing ``underclass'' - and those who thus use a disproportionate amount of a welfare agency's money and effort.
A crucial provision of the Moynihan plan would give states substantial flexibility to experiment, a prerequisite for White House support.
Meanwhile, the White House, after months of virtual silence on welfare reform, has given a clear if private indication that it will support the essence of Senator Moynihan's proposals as an appropriate compromise.
In a White House meeting that President Reagan held earlier this month with members of the American Enterprise Institute's welfare reform study group, Health and Human Services Secretary Otis Bowen read a statement that contained an endorsement of basic elements of the Moynihan proposal.
``Clearly the administration is looking for a compromise'' on welfare reform, says welfare expert Leslie Lenkowsky, who is president of the Institute for Educational Affairs.
But Mr. Lenkowsky says that if administration members feel their views are not taken into account, they will turn thumbs down on it. The administration particularly wants a reform bill that, like the Moynihan proposal, would give states the flexibility to experiment with types of assistance that are different from traditional welfare programs, such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, food stamps, and medicaid.
These two new elements occur at a time when a broad spectrum of welfare experts agree on at least one important change in the current law: that, in return for funds from the government, parents on welfare should be obligated to make themselves employable by finishing high school or taking job training, and then to get a job and assume primary responsibility for supporting themselves and their children.
The two factors favoring reform combine with the present agreement among specialists that able-bodied welfare parents should be required to obtain jobs if they can, or otherwise to be trained or to continue their education in order that they will have the credentials to obtain jobs later.
Yet there is no certainty that this will be the year in which welfare reform actually occurs.
The issue is in surprising turmoil in the US House of Representatives, which was originally expected to approve reform without great difficulty.
The problem is that the Democratic majority and Republican minority cannot agree on a bill.
Republicans say the Democratic proposal under consideration in the public assistance and unemployment compensation subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee is much too expensive, for instance.
Democratic leaders on the issue have decided to stop seeking Republican support and to resume at the end of this month their drafting in subcommittee of a formal bill. At the moment the proposal has virtually no Republican support in the House.
Although it is expected to gain subcommittee approval on a party line vote, it could face difficulties on the House floor, and possibly in the full Ways and Means Committee.
More important, some analysts say, party-line voting in the House would intensify the pressure for partisanship in the Senate and might make it more difficult for those like Senator Moynihan who seek to weld a nonpartisan coalition based on the issue.
One of the most unusual elements of the Moynihan proposal as now constituted is its incentive to states with low welfare benefits, most of which are in the South, to raise them.
In the past liberals have sought to enact a minimum benefit level nationwide. This effort has been opposed by members of Congress from states that give low benefits. They complained that such a move would cost their states a great deal of money, inasmuch as the federal government finances only part of welfare benefits, with the state necessarily picking up the rest.
In addition, a nationwide proposal would be very expensive for the federal government, and states that already provide higher benefits would receive no additional funds. Thus the proposal had limited appeal from elected representatives of those states.
Moynihan's approach is to provide additional federal funds to state which raise their minimum benefits. He would not, however, require a national minimum level. Lenkowsky hails this change. ``What had been a liberal touchstone - a national minimum benefit - is no longer an issue,'' he says.
Not everyone agrees. Douglas Besharov, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says he thinks this idea has not totally defused the issue and is itself ``potentially divisive.''