Over the last two decades the prospects for welfare reform have had more ups and downs than a Disneyland roller coaster. Suddenly they appear to be on an upswing again, several Capitol Hill insiders say. It's possible that in about two months Congress will approve a substantial reform of the troubled American welfare system. The final package may be put together in such a way that it will be very difficult for President Reagan to veto; it may even be structured so it gains White House approval.
``One way or another, the House will pass a bill by late October or early November,'' says a source who asks not to be identified, Meanwhile, the Senate may approve a more-modest measure, or the issue may be thrashed out in a Senate-House conference committee without the Senate having acted.
Many outside observers, however, are less optimistic about action this year. Les Lenkowsky, president of the Institute for Educational Affairs, says prospects look ``doubtful at the moment. ... The will to fashion a working compromise doesn't seem to be there.''
But the view from Capitol Hill is more hopeful. One source says conversations ``could be under way before long'' among Senate Democrats, House and Senate Republicans, and the White House on a compromise all could support. At least one exploratory conversation between two of those groups has been scheduled. (Democrats have their own more-expensive proposal pending in the House.)
Several important reform players have recently sent signals that are interpreted by reform advocates on Capitol Hill as meaning they are willing to try for a compromise on a proposal by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York, the central plan being considered by the Senate.
Included are leading House Republicans, Senate minority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, and the White House. The latter started the upward swing when it surprised Congress early this summer and supported a reform measure proposed by House Republicans.
That bill would provide more money than current law does for education and training of welfare recipients. Until that surprise move, the White House had seemed adamant that although it wanted to give states more flexibility to design their own reform programs, it would not approve added federal funding.
It is too early to know the dimensions of a final bill. But likely to be included are: stiffer efforts to collect payments from absent fathers; increased effort and modest additional funding for the education and training of mothers now on welfare; and a requirement that able-bodied recipients either work or obtain the necessary education or training to enable them to obtain jobs.
``Certainly something will come out'' of Congress on welfare, says Stuart Butler, author of a recent book on welfare reform and director of the Heritage Foundation's Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies. Stiffer child-support measures will be one element of any bill, he says, noting that they have ``broad, bipartisan support.''
No one expects reform this year fundamental enough to solve the complicated welfare problem. ``I certainly don't think it's a foregone conclusion though,'' he says, ``that you're going to see any significant legislation'' in 1987.
According to preliminary estimates by the Congressional Budget Office, the Moynihan measure would cost $2.3 billion over five years, the House Republican measure $1.4 billion, and the basic House Democratic proposal $5.3 billion.
The full House is likely to adopt the plan of its Democratic members in late October as part of an omnibus bill to reconcile spending proposals with the chamber's budget. Similarly, the Senate may accept as part of its budget-reconciliation package either the Moynihan measure or some compromise between it and the House GOP plan.
Senator Moynihan now has 55 senators sponsoring his measure, which adds to the prospect of Senate action this year. If accommodations can be worked out between his position and that of Senator Dole, as seems feasible, his hand would be strengthened even more.