Improve the Welfare Bill

THE Contract With America promised only to debate each provision in it. Now that poorly thought-through legislation on welfare reform is about to be steamrollered through the House this week with the notion that the Contract mandates it must be passed, it's time for responsible Republicans to remind their colleagues of this point.

In reality, the welfare bill already has been altered. The Contract called for a lifetime ban on cash payments to unwed mothers under the age of 18. Legislation out from committee has softened the bill to provide that payments be denied only until mothers turn 18.

So, do House Republicans want to pass legislation that, with the Senate and President Clinton yet to have a say, has little chance of becoming law? Or are they ready to make concessions and still revamp a welfare system badly in need of overhaul?

More softening of the punitive approach toward unwed teenage mothers is one necessary improvement. As the nation's Roman Catholic bishops pointed out recently, whatever provision is made for these mothers and children will be ''a test of our nation's values and our commitment to the 'least among us.' '' Most Americans would be deeply concerned if the effort to discourage teen pregnancies by cutting off aid for additional children resulted in a rise in the number of abortions. Two amendments expected to be offered would provide vouchers to these young mothers to enable them to buy good and services related to child-rearing, such as diapers and clothing. This, at least, is a step in the right direction.

Tough provisions for payments by ''deadbeat dads,'' favored by Mr. Clinton as well as many Republicans, make sense. Improved legislation would also soften the approach toward legal immigrants, who would lose benefits. The vast majority work hard and pay taxes. Some accommodations have been made, such as delaying compliance deadlines and exempting the very elderly. But still wiser would be dropping this provision, with its nativist tinge, altogether.

The Contract deadline forces the House to consider billions in tax cuts for the well-off simultaneously with a welfare plan that cuts $65 billion for the poor. If the House doesn't want to be indelibly stamped as ''compassionless,'' it must significantly alter its punitive welfare plan.

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