Several Republican senators have raised deep concerns with key aspects of the blueprint for overhauling the safety net for the poor. The bill was crafted by Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and passed by the panel last month.
The Packwood plan would transfer authority over Aid to Families With Dependent Children, the main cash welfare program for families, to states and set very few requirements.
Under the proposal, the federal government would provide lump-sum block grants to the states set at each state's 1994 level, a national total of $16.8 billion annually. Republican senators from states with growing populations oppose the funding mechanism, saying it would handicap their states and favor those with shrinking or stable populations.
Other senators argue that the bill should bar states from using federal dollars to provide benefits for young unwed mothers. Discouraging out-of-wedlock births, they insist, should be one of the main goals of welfare reform.
Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.) has warned that he would filibuster debate on the floor unless the bill bars cash aid to such mothers.
Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), a GOP presidential candidate, has also signaled opposition to the bill, saying it is not strict enough in requiring recipients to work.
Packwood and other Senate leaders had indicated that they expected welfare reform to go before the full Senate this week, but emotional, closed-door sessions on the subject over the last few days have revealed the extent of the discord among Republicans.
"I don't think a lot of people realized how passionate a lot of members are about this issue," said Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). Although he's not on the committee, Santorum has been involved in private negotiations with the GOP leadership on the welfare package.
He said he is among many GOP senators who feel welfare reform is "the defining issue of who we are as a party," and believes that there was not enough debate on the bill, which Packwood pushed through his committee in one day.
The House, which passed its sweeping welfare reform effort early this spring, opted to require states to eliminate cash benefits for teen-age mothers and made provisions for large rewards to states that reduced their out-of-wedlock birth rates.
While conservative senators are trying to toughen the legislation before it goes to the floor, moderates are trying to soften it.
Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Budget Committee, and several GOP colleagues were working behind the scenes with Democrats on an amendment that would require states to continue funding their welfare programs at current levels, according to his spokesman.
Democrats, including the President, have warned that the Packwood bill, which requires no state funding, would cause a "race to the bottom," with states competing against each other to provide fewer benefits on the assumption that states with generous programs attract poor people from other states.
The Clinton Administration has also called on Democratic senators to persuade their colleagues to modify some of the provisions, which include allowing states to stop funding welfare, according to senior Administration sources.