President Clinton has broken his silence on welfare reform, and liberals are stunned.
In effect, Mr. Clinton appears ready to dismantle the federal welfare system that was a central feature of the New Deal 60 years ago.
House and Senate versions of welfare reform contain important differences, but on the core principle they are the same: Both would end the federal guarantee of aid to the poor. No president has ever ended a federal entitlement program.
This weekend, Clinton praised a bipartisan compromise reached in the Senateand hinted that if both houses of Congress approve a plan like the Senate's, he would sign it.
Clinton's statements signal a key shift for a president who ran for election in 1992 as a centrist "New Democrat," but who embraced many liberal positions once in office. As the presidential campaign gears up, Clinton appears to have calculated that he is better off signing welfare reform - even a plan that goes against his New Deal roots - than vetoing it. Public support for change in the welfare system is high.
"Unfortunately, the calculus in the White House is that he needs to sign something," says an activist for a children's organization that opposes ending the entitlement. "We don't know how the politics will play out if the president signs this. But we do know that more children will go hungry and homeless."
Conservatives argue that state governments know better how to handle the problem of chronic welfare dependency and should be given freer rein to institute reforms. They reject arguments that states would allow children and families to suffer in the name of cost savings. The Senate version of reform provides for a $1 billion federal contingency fund available to states in times of economic downturn to help them handle an increased welfare caseload.
Under both the House and Senate plans, money from federal entitlement programs, such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, would be turned over to the states as fixed lump-sum payments, called block grants. States would, in turn, decide how to spend this money to help the poor, with some federal guidelines. Benefits would stop after two years; recipients would face a lifetime limit of five years on public assistance. Able-bodied recipients would be required to work.
The Senate version of reform, expected to pass by a comfortable margin in a floor vote tomorrow, would save the federal government $70 billion over seven years. The House passed its own, tougher version in March. It would save $102 billion over the same period.
The House bill contains several provisions that were rejected in the Senate. They include a requirement that states deny benefits to welfare mothers who have additional babies, and one barring cash assistance to unwed teenagers who have babies. For conservatives, including those linked to the powerful Christian conservative movement, these provisions are central to their goal of discouraging illegitimacy.
In the House, such conservatives, led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, have the upper hand. In the Senate, majority leader Bob Dole worked more with an eye toward compromise with Democrats and the White House to produce a bill the president would sign. Senator Dole granted an additional $3 billion in child-care money for welfare mothers to allow them to work, and increased to 20 percent the number of welfare recipients a state may exempt from work requirements because of hardships.
The Senate compromise brought a key endorsement from the chamber's lead Democrat, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who has said he will vote for the legislation. Dole predicts the bill will pass with 70 votes, including many from Democrats.
One Democrat who remains a vocal opponent of ending the entitlement is Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, a longtime critic of the nation's welfare troubles. On the Senate floor, he accused the administration of "abandoning us, those of us who oppose this legislation."
"Do not hurt children on the basis of an unproven theory and untested hypothesis," Senator Moynihan warned, later indicating that he may not support Clinton's reelection bid if the president signs into law an end to federal welfare guarantees.
Moynihan also chided liberal advocacy groups who he says have been ineffective in making their case to the public about the potential harm to children in taking away the federal safety net. "Why do we not see the endless parade of petitioners as when health-care reform was before us in the last Congress, the lobbyists, the pretend citizen groups, the real citizen groups?" he asked. "None are here."