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Welfare Debate Focusing on Out-of-Wedlock Births : Reform: Conservatives push to deny cash benefits to teen-agers who bear children. Issue signals shape and intensity of upcoming Senate action.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Senate Republicans struggled to complete their plan for reforming the nation’s welfare system, conservative social activists and their congressional allies rallied Wednesday in a final push to deny cash benefits to teen-age women who bear children out of wedlock.

With Senate debate on welfare reform to begin in two days, Republicans remain deeply divided over whether Washington should impose federal restrictions on the way states attack the problem of out-of-wedlock births.

One group of senators, including some of the most conservative members, backed by the Christian Coalition and other like-minded activist groups, want to prevent states from giving cash benefits to teen-age mothers or from increasing payments to welfare mothers who have more babies.

A second group, including some more moderate senators, whose position is supported by Catholic bishops and who succeeded in keeping the conservative provisions out of the bill, contend that states should be given freedom to address the problems as they see fit. The bishops argue that the measures being advocated to combat out-of-wedlock births would lead some young women to choose abortions.

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The debate is also tinged with presidential politics. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), the front-runner for the 1996 GOP presidential nomination, has rejected the conservatives’ arguments.

Dole’s principal Senate rival, Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), and other conservatives are negotiating with colleagues and coordinating lobbying efforts to set the stage for a floor battle over the provisions.

“I don’t think we can deal with welfare in this country without dealing with illegitimacy,” Gramm said in an interview, using the term for out-of-wedlock births that conservatives have revived in an effort to give it greater social stigma. “This problem has reached crisis proportions. We’ve got to eliminate financial incentives for people to have babies out of wedlock.” Out-of-wedlock births now account for 30% of all births in America.

Lobbyists for the Christian Coalition and other similar groups have visited and telephoned senators and their staffs and made plans to stake out hallways outside the Senate chamber during the floor debate, which is to start Saturday.

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“We cannot support a bill that does not have tough illegitimacy provisions,” said Brian Lopina, director of the Christian Coalition’s Capitol Hill office. He said that his organization has a “potent grass-roots army” it is marshaling for the fight.

Conservative social activists argue passionately that such births are at the root of a cycle of dependency that has been fostered by the welfare system and contribute to what they see as a general erosion of values in America.

Those on the other side of the debate believe such provisions contradict the prime goal of the GOP’s welfare reform--to transfer authority over welfare to states so they have the flexibility to craft their own programs. They also argue that the restrictions could hurt children and interfere with women’s reproductive rights and they echo arguments of the Catholic bishops, who say that the provisions could lead to more abortions.

“It boils down to a question of your philosophy,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). “Do you want to leave it to the states or set some federal restrictions?”

In a letter to Dole, seven moderate Republicans stressed that “there is no evidence that such provisions have any impact on the rate of out-of-wedlock pregnancies. As such, mandates of this kind will only appear punitive because it is the children who will be denied much-needed assistance through no fault of their own.”

Dole, in a speech Monday, made clear that Catholic voters had more influence with him than do his conservative colleagues.

“Along with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Catholic Charities and other groups have urged us not to put the unborn at risk in our important efforts to remove any incentives for illegitimacy,” Dole said. “I will do all in my power to ensure that our reforms will not increase the tragedy of abortions.”


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