The Senate has endorsed a dramatic overhaul of the nation's welfare system, adopting legislation that would end the federal commitment to provide assistance to poor Americans and limiting benefits to five years.
The bill, approved Tuesday on a bipartisan vote of 74-24, is slightly less restrictive than a welfare measure approved by the House last week. But the question of whether President Clinton will sign the bill remains open.
The president, on a campaign swing through California, said the bill had been improved in the Senate, but he urged Congress to make more changes.
"You can put wings on a pig, but you don't make it an eagle."
"If we can keep this progress up, if we can make it bipartisan," Clinton said, "then we can have a real welfare reform bill.
"I just don't want to do anything that hurts kids."
Florida's Republican Sen. Connie Mack voted for the reform bill. Democrat Bob Graham voted against it.
Like the House bill, the Senate version turns control of welfare programs over to the states and replaces the current system of open-ended federal spending with annual lump-sum payments, or block grants, to the states.
It would eliminate assistance to most legal immigrants who have not become citizens, require most adult welfare recipients to work and reduce projected spending on the programs by about $60-billion over the next six years.
The bill "will end welfare as a life, a way of life," said Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. "It is historic. If you really want welfare reform, this is it."
Lott said Congress would send the bill to Clinton before it leaves for its monthlong summer recess at the end of next week. He predicted the president would sign the legislation.
"If he doesn't sign this one, it will be the third one he's vetoed in eight months," Lott said. "You can't say you're for (welfare reform) and then say, "But not that one, not that one, not that one.'
Although Clinton has said he wants to sign welfare legislation, the versions that now have emerged from the House and Senate contain provisions he has said are too harsh on legal immigrants and do not provide adequate protections for the children of welfare recipients.
Several Democrats said Tuesday that Senate changes aimed at softening the impact of the bill could make it easier for Clinton to sign. But the president still faces a difficult political dilemma. If he signs the measure, he risks criticism from within the liberal base of the Democratic Party. If he vetoes it, Republicans are poised to accuse him of going back on his word and selling out to the Democratic left.
Clinton's GOP rival, Bob Dole, challenged him Tuesday to keep his 1992 campaign promise to "end welfare as we know it."
"Under pressure from his party's liberal wing, the president has refused to offer his support for this common sense and bipartisan approach," Dole said. "You have one last chance, Mr. President _ keep your promise and sign this bill."
Democrats split evenly in voting for the bill, with six of the seven running for re-election supporting it.
Others predicted that it will increase poverty and harm innocent children.
"The Senate will rue the day we passed this legislation," said Sen. Carol Mosely-Braun, D-Ill. The measure, she said, "will do actual violence to poor children." Senate Democratic leader Thomas Daschle, who voted for the GOP welfare bill last year, urged his colleagues to vote against this measure.
"When it comes to kids, this bill is still too punitive," he said.
At the urging of moderate Republicans and Democrats, the Senate approved two amendments sought by the White House, one extending Medicaid coverage to some children and women and the other eliminating language that would have allowed states to accept their food-stamp funds in a capped block grant.
Clinton had expressed concern about the original language in the bill and Tuesday, the White House reacted positively to the changes.
"We've won on both key amendments. We're very pleased with the results we're getting so far," said White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta.
Sen. John Breaux, D-La., argued that if a House-Senate conference committee makes additional changes dealing with aid for legal immigrants and vouchers for children whose parents lose benefits, the bill would be something the president could sign. But some GOP leaders predicted that the bill that emerge from conference could well be tougher than the Senate bill.
Senators on Tuesday rejected other efforts to make the bill more acceptable to Clinton, defeating an amendment that would have provided for vouchers to help families who have lost their benefits purchase diapers, medicine or clothing for children.
The Senate also defeated efforts to soften the bill's impact on legal immigrants, most of whom will lose eligibility for Supplemental Security Income for the elderly and disabled and food stamps
This is the second time in two years that Congress has tackled legislation that would significantly alter the social safety net for disadvantaged Americans. Since the president's veto last year, Republicans have made significant changes, adding funds to help welfare mothers required to work to pay for child care and abandoning plans to rewrite other federal welfare programs for disabled children, foster care and child nutrition.
Like the House measure, the Senate bill eliminates Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which is administered by the federal government, and replaces it with state-run cash assistance programs. It would limit benefits to five years, although states could exempt 20 percent of their recipients from the limit. States could also impose a shorter time limit, and could cut off payments to unmarried teen mothers.
Most of the savings from the bill _ about $28-billion _ come from reductions in the food stamp program.
_ Information from Knight-Ridder Newspapers was used in this report.
Among the highlights of the welfare reform bill approved by the Senate:
_ ENDS the 61-year-old guarantee of federal cash assistance to poor children.
_ REPLACES four federal poverty programs _ including Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which is generally known as "welfare" _ with block grants to the states.
_ REQUIRES recipients to go to work within two years or lose federal benefits.
_ PLACES a lifetime limit of five years on benefits, although states could grant hardship exemptions to up to 20 percent of their welfare caseload.
_ BANS illegal immigrants from receiving most federal and state welfare benefits. Legal immigrants would be ineligible for most benefits for five years after arriving in the United States.
SOURCE: Scripps Howard News Service