House Approves Sweeping Reform of Welfare System : Legislation: Compromise measure that gives states more power to run anti-poverty programs passes, 245-178, despite veto threat. Close vote is expected today in Senate.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The House brushed aside a fresh veto threat by President Clinton and passed a sweeping welfare overhaul Thursday that is a cornerstone of the GOP campaign to reduce the scope of the federal government.

"No longer are we going to see generations of Americans wasting their lives--wasting their futures--on welfare," said Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.), the chief sponsor of the measure.

The bill, approved by a vote of 245 to 178, faces a tougher test in the Senate today before it goes to Clinton for his promised veto. Seventeen House Democrats voted for the measure and four Republicans voted against it.

If enacted, it would replace a 60-year guarantee of cash assistance for poor women and children with lump-sum block grants to the states, which would craft their own programs to support poor families and put parents to work. For the first time, cash benefits would be limited, with individuals eligible for a total of five years of benefits in a lifetime.

Before the vote, Clinton warned Congress that he would veto the measure because it "includes deep cuts that are tough on children and at odds with my central goal of moving people from welfare to work."

"I am disappointed that Republicans are trying to use the words 'welfare reform' as cover to advance a budget plan that is at odds with America's values," Clinton said.

House sponsors of the measure implored the president to sign it and credited him for initially focusing the country's attention on the flaws of the current welfare system during his 1992 campaign.

All 30 Republican governors sent a letter to Clinton urging him to embrace the measure "to end decades of dependency and to begin a new era of responsibility."

"You have consistently said that we must 'end welfare as we know it,' " the letter said. "The time is now. This is the bill. The rest is up to you."

The compromise GOP measure, completed after three months of intense haggling among House and Senate Republicans, would spend $58 billion less over seven years than current law on programs for the poor. It would require welfare recipients to work after two years, deny most benefits to legal immigrants and reduce spending on an array of anti-poverty programs, from food stamps to supplemental security income for disabled children.

In an effort to discourage out-of-wedlock births, families on welfare no longer would receive larger checks because they have more children, and states would have the option of denying benefits to teenage mothers.

The measure is significantly more moderate than the House version of welfare reform, which was passed in March. But it is tougher in some provisions than the Senate plan, which passed in September.

In debate Thursday, Democrats denounced the GOP plan in emotional speeches on the House floor. One lawmaker, Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma), likened it to Dr. Seuss' classic parable about the Grinch who stole Christmas.

"This Grinch-like welfare bill is not just stealing Christmas from poor children. It's stealing their basic safety net," said Woolsey, a former welfare recipient.

Woolsey read from the book, suggesting that Republicans, like the Grinch, are attempting to steal Christmas because of hearts that are "two sizes too small."

Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez (D-N.Y.) denounced provisions in the measure that would deny legal immigrants supplemental security income and food stamps until they become naturalized citizens and would give states the option of withholding cash welfare, Medicaid health care coverage and other benefits from them. Current legal immigrants would receive the benefits for one year, however.

"The conference agreement is an insult to millions of hard-working immigrants," Velazquez said. "It is not only unfair, unjust, discriminatory and prejudicial--it is unconstitutional. Furthermore, it is a shameful and vicious attempt to single out and penalize immigrants for the wrongs of society."

But Republicans countered with their own impassioned speeches.

Rep. Gary Franks (R-Conn.), who is black, spoke of the similarities between slavery and welfare.

"Both systems have the same end result," he said. "They control people's lives. We ended slavery. The least we can do is reform welfare."

"This bill achieves long overdue welfare reform by stressing work, personal responsibility and the return of power and flexibility to the states," said Rep. Bill Archer, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which wrote much of the bill.

Welfare reform is one of the GOP's most popular initiatives. In a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, 48% of respondents said that they believe the GOP welfare overhaul would be good for the country, while only 30% said it would be bad.

The president, in deciding to veto the measure, is taking a sizable political risk, and Republicans on Thursday seemed to be relishing the thought of running against Democrats who voted against welfare reform and a president who vetoed it.

Most Senate Democrats--many of whom joined Republicans to pass the Senate version of welfare reform, 87 to 12--appeared to be rallying behind the president's position and said that they would switch their votes when the compromise version comes before the Senate today.

Moderate Senate Republicans also expressed concerns, opposing provisions that would cancel the guarantee of Medicaid health care coverage to welfare recipients, cut funds available for child care and child protective services and reduce or eliminate benefits for hundreds of thousands of disabled children.

Those senators, including Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) and Sen. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.), said that they had not yet decided how they would vote. Either way, the Senate is likely to approve the measure and send it to the president.

The president and some Senate Democrats said that they hope to renegotiate a welfare reform plan in the context of the overall budget negotiations now taking place.

But Shaw said: "I don't know if we can move any further. We've already come more than halfway" to the president's position.

The legislation also would:

* Create the first nationwide clearinghouse for tracking parents who are delinquent in child-support payments and revoke drivers' licenses for "deadbeat" parents.

* Require 50% of all families on welfare in each state to work by 2002.

* Provide 5% and 10% of a state's total cash welfare block grant as bonuses to states that reduce out-of-wedlock births.

* Require able-bodied adults without dependent children to work before receiving food stamps.

* Allow seven states to experiment with running school-lunch programs.

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