President Bush insisted on tougher work requirements for welfare recipients Monday, denouncing the Senate Democrats’ welfare reform bill as “a retreat from success” riddled with “loopholes.”
Bush all but threatened to veto that bill, which the Senate Finance Committee approved last month.
His remarks set the stage for a potential end-of-session showdown with a looming deadline for Congress to extend the landmark 1996 law, which ended lifetime entitlements to welfare benefits. The current legislation expires Sept. 30.
The Republican House reauthorized the 1996 law in May, imposing stiffer work requirements for welfare recipients and providing more money to support programs that promote marriage.
But Bush’s uncompromising tone here toward the Senate Democrats’ alternative highlighted the chasm between the two parties on how to further reform the nation’s $16.5-billion welfare program.
While Republicans are declaring the 1996 reforms a resounding success and are clamoring for more stringent rules, many Democrats want to soften some of the policies that President Clinton signed into law six years ago. The Senate bill, for instance, would provide billions of dollars more for child care than the House version.
Because of such differences, it is not certain that Congress will be able to pass a new welfare bill. If an impasse arises, lawmakers probably would extend current policies until they are able to agree on a plan.
The welfare speech was part of a weeklong campaign by the president to prod the Senate into passing some of his pet bills, including legislation granting him greater freedom to negotiate trade pacts.
Today, Bush will sign a corporate responsibility reform bill, which contains some tough measures against dishonest business executives that he initially had resisted. But given the public outrage over the rash of corporate accounting scandals, Bush was not about to veto such a popular bill.
“Tomorrow, I’m signing a good bill,” Bush announced here, adding that its message to corporate executives is clear: “If you’re a CEO and you think you can fudge the books in order to make yourself look better, we’re going to find you, we’re going to arrest you and we’re going to hold you to account.”
On welfare reform, Bush backs the House bill, which would require recipients to work 40 hours a week. At least 24 hours a week would have to be spent in actual employment; the remaining 16 hours could be used for education, job training and a variety of family activities.
Under the current law, 30 hours of work are required, but even that requirement’s reach is limited.
Bush called the Senate bill “a retreat from the success” and said it would “hurt the very people we’re trying to help,” in part because it contains “so many work exceptions that it will result in many fewer welfare recipients moving from welfare to work.”
For instance, he said, the Democratic bill would allow recipients to meet work requirements even if they spent “their entire five years
Bush also expressed his unhappiness over the bill’s allocation of only one-third of the $300 million that he sought for programs that promote marriage.
“That doesn’t make sense to me,” Bush fumed. “As a matter of fact, some of the money that they believe ought to be spent on so-called family building will go to programs that have nothing to do with promoting marriage.”
Bush insisted that the 1996 legislation was “a true success story,” even though many social activists have criticized it for being unnecessarily harsh, especially on women and children.
The president said that as a result of the reforms, 5.4 million fewer Americans are living in poverty, including 2.8 million fewer children.
Michael Siegel, spokesman for Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, disputed Bush’s criticism of the panel’s bill.
“This is a bipartisan bill that includes a broad range of ideas supported by Senate members of the president’s own party,” he said.
Following his remarks before several thousand people at West Ashley High School, Bush attended a fund-raiser for Mark Sanford, a former congressman who is running for governor against incumbent Jim Hodges, a Democrat, in what is expected to be a close contest.
The event raised $1 million for Sanford’s campaign and $200,000 for the state Republican Party.
Times staff writers Jonathan Peterson and Richard Simon in Washington contributed to this report.