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Welfare bill turns heat up on Clinton

Congress is on the verge of passing welfare reform in the next few days, but this time the reform package is mired in presidential politics.

The Republicans have President Clinton over a barrel, which was their stated goal.

They are planning to send him a welfare bill that is anathema to advocates for children and the poor, a big part of Clinton's base in the Democratic Par-ty. If he signs the bill, those people will feel furious and betrayed.

But if he vetoes the bill, the Republicans can crow that Clinton broke his 1992 promise to end welfare as we know it.

The GOP spent this week setting Clinton up. House Speaker Newt Gingrich said the president has an "absolute moral obligation" to sign the bill. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott wrote to Clinton that a veto would "represent a serious breach of your word."

Clinton, who twice vetoed earlier versions of welfare reform, dearly wants to claim victory on welfare and avoid giving the Republicans an issue to use against him in the presidential campaign. But on the flip side, he has had some success portraying himself as the lone, brave figure standing between hungry children and Republican extremists.

So while Clinton sounds eager to sign a welfare bill, he does a tap dance every time he is asked about it.

Sweeping reforms

Perhaps lost in all the politics is the sweeping nature of this reform package. After 61 years, Congress is changing its philosophy of welfare, rewriting a contract with the poor that was first proposed by President Franklin Roosevelt.

Roosevelt wanted to keep mothers at home with their children. His idea of welfare was to pay widows a little cash so they could keep body and soul together, so they wouldn't have to work, so their children wouldn't end up in orphanages.

Welfare today is paid mostly to 5-million divorced women or mothers who never married. Republicans blame the system for breaking up families and encouraging out-of-wedlock births. Democrats, too, say the system is broken.

Under the reform package, the federal government would no longer guarantee payments to any poor family that qualified. Instead, it would send a lump sum of money to each state and let the states decide who should get welfare and how.

But Congress is attaching some strings. Welfare recipients would have to find jobs within two years. They couldn't receive welfare more than five years in a lifetime, with some exceptions for hardships.

At Clinton's insistence, the Republicans added more money for child care so welfare mothers would have someplace to leave their children while they worked. They also left school lunches alone.

But the bill would cut 700,000 people from the food-stamp rolls and end cash benefits for 300,000 disabled children.

The bill would save an estimated $53-billion over the next six years.

Florida's stake

Those points are pretty well settled. Clinton isn't fighting them, and many Democrats in Congress voted for the Republican plan.

Florida Sen. Bob Graham was one of the Democratic holdouts.

"This bill has about as much chance of achieving real reform as I do of winning an Olympic gold medal," he said.

Florida would take a huge financial hit, Graham warned Friday. The federal money it gets for welfare would be frozen at current levels, and Graham fears there wouldn't be enough money to cover the poor people who keep moving into the state, unless Florida taxpayers provided more.

Immigrants _ those who entered the country legally _ would be left without access to welfare, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income for the elderly and disabled, or federal college loans. (Such benefits are already denied to illegal immigrants.)

Legal immigrants would be covered only by Medicaid for emergency services, which does not include childbirth, Graham said. Public hospitals like Tampa General or Jackson Memorial in Miami would be left holding the bag for immigrants who can't pay.

Graham said the bill doesn't provide enough money for job training, education or child care while insisting that welfare mothers go to work.

Florida GOP Chairman Tom Slade lamented that Graham had "joined with the liberal extremists" in opposing the bill.

But new reports the past couple of weeks also cast doubt on the welfare package.

The Congressional Budget Office, which analyzes bills and is headed by a Gingrich appointee, said welfare reform won't work as designed.

Welfare rolls might be cut by 30 percent to 40 percent but not because all those people found jobs. Many would be kicked off after the five-year limit, CBO said.

States would be required under the bill to move half the adult welfare clients into jobs by 2002, a success rate unheard of in welfare experiments the past eight years.

The Urban Institute, a slightly liberal but respected think tank, estimated 1.1-million children would be pushed into poverty by the Republicans' efforts to reduce spending on welfare and food stamps.

Religious leaders and anti-hunger groups said they were appalled that Clinton might sign the bill.

"There is a clear biblical mandate to care for the most vulnerable and needy of God's children," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. "How can members of Congress reconcile their support for proposals that leave more children, more disabled people and more legal immigrants in greater hunger and poverty?"

"Today's proposals are largely a sham designed to appease the ignorant and to pander to our worst prejudices in an election year," wrote the Rev. Fred Kammer, president of Catholic Charities USA.

Liberate the poor

Republicans say welfare reform will liberate the poor from the cycle of dependency, weaning them from welfare and making them self-sufficient.

Like Clinton, the GOP also promised welfare reform to the voters, part of its Contract with America. GOP members of Congress would love to brag about it as they campaign this fall.

The architect of the welfare bill, Republican Rep. Clay Shaw of Fort Lauderdale, wrote in a letter to Clinton, "Our welfare reform bill represents not only a return to the values of work, personal responsibility and a temporary helping hand, but it represents our best chance to restore hope and opportunity to our nation's neediest citizens."

The letter, also signed by Gingrich and the GOP leadership, said, "We know you are under considerable pressure from many in your party, and from within your own administration, to weaken the bill."

But the Republicans said they won't agree to vouchers to buy diapers and clothing for children whose parents are kicked off welfare under the new time limits, which Clinton wants. Vouchers would render time limits toothless, they said.

And they insisted on cutting off federal benefits to non-citizens.

"We're getting into a horrible situation of people coming over here and getting right on Medicaid and going into nursing homes," Shaw said Friday. "That stuff's gotta stop. We can't be the nursing home for the whole world."

The promise of welfare and Medicaid are drawing immigrants into South Florida, he said, and the state already has to share those costs with the federal government.

A conference committee is reconciling the differences in the welfare bills that were passed by the House and Senate this month. Rep. Karen Thurman, a Dunnellon Democrat on the committee, said if a bill passes, she is hoping many items can be addressed again next year after the states see how welfare reform works for them.

"I will be the last one to tell you I think we are totally doing the right thing here," Thurman said. "I am real worried about what happens potentially to children in this country."

If the compromise can be crafted to please Democrats like Thurman, then Clinton will be under more pressure to sign it, Shaw said.

"I think the president is still undecided, and I think he's calculating the political damage he's going to take whether he does or doesn't sign it," Shaw said. "He's in a bit of a box."

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