In one sense welfare reform, or dismantlement, depending on your inclination, has already happened. No significant group of policymakers any longer defends the fundamental entitlement of poor families with children to government assistance, the foundation rock that President Roosevelt wrote into the original Social Security Act.
Efforts to fashion a new system have generally foundered on resistance from both conservatives and liberals. President Nixon's visionary Family Assistance Program, a workfare plan with elements of negative income tax, was denounced by conservatives as a "megadole" but in the end was done in by the opposition of welfare-rights advocates.
There is today no significant welfare-rights movement, as such, but it has been replaced by a child-advocacy movement, whose adherents include Hillary Rodham Clinton. It is around the impact on children that much of the current debate swirls. President Clinton, anxious to deliver on his promise to "end welfare as we know it," felt obliged to veto one reform bill last fall after Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) forced the release of an internal study indicating that its operation might deliver 1.5 million children into poverty.
The essential five-year limit on lifetime welfare benefits - or less if a state prefers - is retained in the current Senate and House bills. (This week, addressing the National Governors' Association, Mr. Clinton talked of requiring work after two years.) The administration has been concentrating on maintaining other benefits for children, especially Medicaid. And, if bipartisan agreement is reached on a bill without a "poison pill," as it is termed in the White House, the president indicates that he will sign it. "A historic opportunity," press secretary Michael McCurry calls it.
The president and the congressional Republican leadership share an interest in producing one major piece of campaign-year legislation or ensuring that the other is blamed if it doesn't happen. But neither Republicans nor Democrats are united among themselves on various features of the bill, such as stopping payments to unmarried teenage mothers and denying benefits to legal immigrants. Some of the less campaign-minded in Clinton's administration are praying that the whole endeavor fails.
The administration is holding up further granting of waivers to states, notably Wisconsin, to pursue its own welfare reforms while waiting to see if an acceptable bill emerges from Congress. Few are betting that all this will fall into place. If it doesn't, Clinton can repeat the words of President Nixon 25 years ago, that he supported "an idea ahead of its time."
*Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.