The Senate voted, 52 to 47, Friday to approve the Republican blueprint for transferring control of the nation’s welfare system to the states, sending it to President Clinton for an expected veto that almost certainly will prevent the measure from becoming law.
The vote, largely along party lines, was far short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto. Coupled with the relatively narrow margin of approval in the House the day before, Clinton’s veto is expected to kill the House-Senate compromise measure viewed by many Republicans as the crown jewel of their legislative revolution.
Republicans, however, were not yet willing to concede defeat. They urged Clinton to think again before vetoing a measure that would fulfill his 1992 campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it.”
“Today we’re delivering welfare reform to the American people. There is no need to wait any longer. Welfare reform is here,” said Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.), chairman of the Finance Committee. “After 30 years of failed experimentation it is clear [that] the Washington bureaucracy cannot tell us how to break the vicious cycle of dependency.”
“It is a lost opportunity but it’s not going to be the last opportunity we will have to make welfare reform work better,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).
The president and some Senate Democrats want to tackle the welfare issue in the broad negotiations between the White House and congressional leaders on the budget, although other Democrats want the reforms addressed carefully and fully outside the high-pressure budget talks.
Whatever the forum, Republicans--despite their apparently looming defeat on this legislation--are expected eventually to achieve many of the changes in the bill, which would end the federal guarantee of benefits to every poor woman with children and give states lump-sum block grants to craft their own programs to support poor families and get poor adults into jobs.
The measure would spend $58 billion less over seven years on programs for the poor than is allowed by current law. For the first time, cash benefits would be limited to five years for each recipient and most adults would be required to work after two years on the welfare rolls. Legal immigrants for the first time would be denied most benefits until they become naturalized citizens.
Clinton’s top priorities in new negotiations on welfare, according to senior administration officials, would be:
* To ensure Medicaid health care coverage for all welfare recipients and a year of transitional benefits for those who leave welfare for jobs.
* To increase funding for child care for welfare mothers who go to work.
* To make smaller cuts in cash assistance for disabled children.
* To retain current funding for recruitment of foster parents and investigation of child abuse.
Friday’s vote was far different from that three months ago on the Senate’s original measure. That bill passed, 87 to 12, with broad bipartisan support, then had to be reconciled by a House-Senate conference committee with a tougher House version.
Supporters of the measure passed Friday argued that the compromise was similar to the original Senate version. But Democrats and some moderate Republicans said that the compromise legislation denied poor and disabled children financial support and health care that would have been provided under the initial Senate bill.
Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado and Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, two moderate Republicans who voted against the measure, said that they could not support a bill that reduces so many benefits, including food stamps, health care coverage and cash aid to disabled children.
But Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) said he was “astounded to hear members say the bill is worse. . . . The bill moves more in the direction of the other side” than the original Senate measure, he said.
Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) told fellow senators that in three days most Americans would celebrate the birth of Jesus, who said: “Whatever you do for poor people you do for me. We in the United States Congress are going to celebrate Christmas by trashing poor people. What a record!”
Some GOP senators who opposed certain provisions of the bill but voted for it nonetheless said that they are pleased Clinton plans to veto it. “I think it’s going to be helpful to have further negotiations,” said Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.).
Like the president, these moderates said, they worry that the measure creates too many holes in the federal safety net, especially in programs that provide health care coverage to poor children and their mothers and financial support for disabled children. They also said that they worry about reductions in the growth of spending for some child protective services.
In anticipation that welfare reform would be revived in the budget talks, GOP staff members were already preparing Friday for such negotiations.
But Chafee and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) argued that welfare reform should continue to be negotiated separately because the budget talks cover so many issues that welfare reform would not get adequate attention.
Moynihan and 10 other Democrats who originally opposed the Senate welfare plan sent a letter to Clinton asking him to keep it out of the budget process, warning that “true change cannot be fashioned in a matter of days.”
“We must insist that no broad welfare measure be included in the end-of-session budget agreement now being negotiated between you and the Republican leaders,” the letter states. “This would truly snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”
During the budget talks, the White House has called for reforms that would save $40 billion over seven years from welfare and the earned-income tax credit, which cuts taxes for the working poor and provides cash to those in the lowest income brackets. GOP negotiators want to save $58 billion from welfare and another $32 billion from the earned-income tax credit over the seven years.
Administration officials said it is possible that the White House and the GOP negotiators will agree to an overall level of savings from welfare during the budget talks and direct Congress to draft legislation to match the numbers.
Some senators said that Friday’s vote was so much more partisan than the earlier one because of a recent analysis by the White House Office of Management and Budget predicting that the compromise measure would push 1.5 million more children into poverty and make millions more who are already under the poverty line even more destitute.
“This country already has higher child poverty rates than every other industrialized nation,” Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.) said during the debate. “Why would this Congress knowingly exacerbate that already shameful figure?”