THE transformation of the welfare system by Washington anytime soon is looking less likely these days.
President Clinton is scaling down his ambitions for ``ending welfare as we know it'' because of the cost. Also, the difficulties Congress would face in turning out legislation this year - on top of health-care reform - are growing steadily greater.
So, will the welfare system that is so roundly despised in this country begin to look and feel different in the next few years?
It may. Regardless of what happens at the federal level, states are pioneering major variations of their welfare systems from tough benefits cuts for children born on welfare and stiffer work requirements to raising limits on earnings and savings.
In Washington, too, there is broad agreement that the welfare system needs fundamental change toward supporting work and responsibility.
But since the White House indicated this week that Mr. Clinton has decided to propose a welfare reform at about half the cost his advisers have recommended, unease is spreading among his moderate and conservative supporters that he is aiming too low.
``Welfare reform was a centerpiece of Bill Clinton's campaign and it should be a centerpiece of his administration,'' says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank.
``We should be willing to spend what it takes to end welfare as we know it, ... to make this reform work,'' says Mr. Marshall.
An irony of this debate is that the more conservative voices in welfare reform seek higher spending levels to change the system than liberals. The debate has shown that it costs more to push welfare into a system that supports work and responsibility than it does to leave it alone.
The major House Republican plan would spend more than twice what the $9.5 billion Clinton proposal would cost.
SO far, the heart of the federal welfare reform debate has been work - preparing welfare recipients for work, making work possible through child care assistance, and making sure that work pays so that welfare is not a trap.
Clinton is holding to his campaign promise of a two-year limit on welfare assistance before a recipient is required to work, but to avoid raising taxes he is cutting down on some other elements.
His advisers had proposed $5 billion over five years for child care for the working poor. Clinton has tentatively cut this figure to $1.5 billion.
Clinton also wanted to remove some of the restrictions on benefits for two-parent families, since these act as disincentives for parents to marry - or form a household. But the staff proposals would cost $2 billion, and Clinton cut that bill by three-quarters.
A group of prominent Republicans, including William Bennett, produced an alternative plan yesterday. It retains a strong focus on work, but moves the problem of out-of-wedlock births to the center of the debate. This proposal would deny welfare benefits - with the exception of Medicaid - to unwed mothers under the age of 21.
Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, one of the architects of this plan, credits Clinton with speaking ``more forthrightly than any American president on the disintegration of the American family.'' Clinton supporters find the new GOP plan too harsh.
The Clinton plan remains the one most likely to become law, but as Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute says, ``as each day goes by, the chances of a bill this year get slimmer and slimmer.''