The House Wednesday approved three anti-abortion amendments to the GOP welfare reform bill aimed at decreasing what some members fear would be incentives for poor women to terminate pregnancies.
The votes were part of a carefully scripted debate organized by the Republican leadership to modify minor features of their sweeping package without changing its basic contours. Only 31 of the more than 150 amendments submitted will be permitted by the House leadership before the final vote on the landmark package, expected by Friday.
The Republican measure would transfer authority over much of the safety net for the poor to the states, limit a recipient's welfare benefits to five years in a lifetime and require work after two years on the rolls. It would save $66 billion over five years, largely by denying dozens of benefits to legal immigrants, eliminating income support for hundreds of thousands of families with disabled children and restraining the growth of many programs, from food stamps to school lunches.
Republicans came close to preventing debate on their own bill early in the day when 15 of them voted with Democrats against a decision by the Rules Committee on which amendments would be permitted. The panel's decision prevailed, however, 217 to 211.
Many of the 15 Republicans who opposed the committee's ruling on the amendments did so because they fear that the legislation as drafted would encourage abortions. Others were angered by provisions denying benefits to legal immigrants who are not yet citizens.
Some Republicans also were concerned with provisions in the GOP bill that would deny cash benefits to teen-age mothers and prevent states from increasing welfare checks for parents on welfare who have babies.
One of the three anti-abortion amendments adopted Wednesday night would prohibit the use of federal funds to pay for abortions. The amendment was largely symbolic because it reiterates existing law that bars Health and Human Services Department funds from being used for abortions.
Two other amendments targeted at reducing incentives for abortion also were adopted. One would allow states to supply vouchers for baby goods to families on welfare who have additional babies and another would provide similar vouchers to unwed mothers younger than 18.
But the three amendments did not go far enough to alleviate the concerns of some anti-abortion members.
"I am embarrassed to stand here today and admit that a party that talks about family values provides no incentives to keep families together," said Rep. Jim Bunn (R-Ore.), who had offered another amendment, which was rejected by the GOP leadership. It would have allowed states to make cash payments to mothers younger than 18 if they live with adults and stay in school.
The anti-abortion funding amendment was debated together with 10 unrelated amendments. The House then approved all the amendments on a single vote, 249 to 177, largely along party lines.
Democratic lawmakers and some Republicans accused GOP leaders of creating the impression of open deliberation and debate while preventing House members from addressing many fundamental issues raised by the welfare bill.
"No wonder you refused to debate this bill," said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez). "You don't want America to find out what you are doing to the children of this nation."
One of the approved amendments would increase the percentage of a state's welfare caseload that would be required to work. The new provision would require 10% of recipients to work by 1996, rising to 50% by 2003.
Democrats said that they support many of the GOP requirements but they rejected the Republican assumption that states could move more people to work without spending more money on training, education and job placement.
Rep. Major R. Owens (D-N.Y.) said that the only way to move people from welfare to work without spending money is by returning to the plantation era. "We're creating a situation where a state becomes a slave master," he said.
Rep. James Talent (R-Mo.) argued that "work is not expensive" if states focused their efforts on women with school-aged families.
Female Republican lawmakers called a special news conference earlier in the day to try to dispel the heartless image that Democrats are trying to attach to the GOP plan.
"Here, you see us. Do we look like ogres?" asked Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio).
Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.) defended the provision that would deny cash benefits to mothers younger than 18. "They're their parents' responsibility," Johnson said. "They are not the taxpayers' responsibility."